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CHENNAI, India, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Regina Khatoon, a sex trafficking survivor from the Indian city of Kolkata, heard about women being exploited in a spinning mill more than 1,000 miles away, she decided to write them a letter urging them to stay strong.
For the past six months, Khatoon and other survivors of forced prostitution have gathered together to write letters of support to victims of sex trafficking and forced labour whose stories appear in the news.
After the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that six women at a spinning mill in Tamil Nadu state had appealed to authorities for help after suffering sexual harassment from a supervisor and other male workers, Khatoon felt compelled to respond.
In a letter, she and 12 other trafficking victims from West Bengal told the women they understood their pain and applauded their bravery in risking their jobs to challenge the abuse, which included being groped and having pay deducted for resisting unwanted advances.
"It is difficult to put into words how we felt when we heard about the disgusting behaviour of the supervisor and the male workers of the mill," they wrote.
"Our hopes, courage and resilience are with you, please stay strong."
More than 18 million people are enslaved in India, many of them women and girls sold into brothels or workers trapped in brick kilns and garment factories, according to the latest Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Khatoon, who was sold into a brothel at the age of 13, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she felt connected to the Tamil Nadu workers.
"I have been through the suffering they are going through and I want to tell them they are not alone in their fight."
Psychologists say sharing solidarity with other victims is highly effective in allowing trafficking survivors to deal with the past and cope with the present.
Uma Chatterjee, a psychologist with non-profit Sanjog, said that letter-writing helps survivors deal with the most common question they grapple with: "Why me?"
"It helps them realise they are not alone and connects them with each other, strengthening their claim to justice and equity," said Chatterjee, who also helped translate the letter from Bengali to English.
"I felt a lot of anger that the women in the mill were facing so much harassment," said Khatoon.
"For four years, I was imprisoned, beaten, abused and raped, before finally being rescued," she said. "But these women are still stuck in the mill, their abuse continues."
Five of the women still work at the mill. They acknowledged receipt of the letter through a former colleague to the Thomson Reuters Foundation but declined to comment on it. (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ed Upright and Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)