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May 1, 2007

An Unbreakable Spirit

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She was kidnapped, drugged, and sold to a brothel, where she worked for more than five years. The most remarkable thing about Aisha Parveen is not that she escaped -- but that she never stopped fighting for her freedom.

For the first 14 years of her life, Aisha Parveen lived with her family in a village in the wild northwestern region of Pakistan, enjoying what in retrospect was a pleasant, cosseted, and rather boring life. Then, as she walked to school one day, she was hit on the head and knocked unconscious-and in the years since, nothing has ever been the same. When Aisha awoke, she found herself imprisoned in a brothel in the Pakistani town of Khanpur, hundreds of miles away. (After knocking her out, her kidnappers had drugged her to keep her incapacitated during transport.)

"I didn't know what had happened to me or where I was," she says. "Then, when the drugs wore off, they told me I was to be a prostitute." Aisha refused to comply. She wept, screamed, and pleaded to go back to her parents. She fought back against the men who entered her room to rape her, even when they beat her into submission. The brothel owner -- a man named Mian Sher who was, like Aisha, a member of the Pashtun tribe -- punished her with beatings and torture. At one point, he forced hot tongs into her vagina, says Aisha, to humiliate her and break her spirit.

None of this is particularly unusual in Pakistan. In fact, all around the world, girls in their early- and midteens are kidnapped and imprisoned in brothels, then raped and bullied- even forced to eat dog droppings -- to break their will and make them accept their fate. These girls spend years in captivity, often until they are too sick with AIDS to attract customers. Numbers are elusive, but estimates by various organizations suggest that each year, hundreds of thousands of girls are forcibly trafficked into brothels.

The United Nations has estimated that in Asia alone, 1 million children are held in conditions amounting to slavery. Aisha, now 20, is fiery and feisty, a slender young woman who is quick with laughter and tears. As hard as he tried, Mian Sher was never able to break her. She continued to fight, despite the fact that during the years following her abduction, not a day went by when she wasn't beaten by Mian Sher or his wife.

For six years, Aisha remained trapped inside the brothel. At night, she was forced to sleep naked so that she would be too embarrassed to try to escape. Two other girls also continued to resist -- as a result, Aisha believes they were murdered. In any case, death may be imminent for all the girls at Mian Sher's brothel: None of them have access to condoms, and the potential for AIDS is immense.

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