Unprecedented migration is feeding child trafficking like never before, reports Divya Gupta
SEX WITH a virgin will cure men of STDs and HIV/AIDS: this common, if ludicrous, myth is just one example of the cultural complexity and otherwise enormous challenge of child trafficking in India.
The instant connection, while talking about child trafficking, is with sexual exploitation. In reality, the reasons run into an ever-expanding list – marriage, adoption, labour, entertainment and sports (beer bars, circus troupes, camel jockeys), begging, drug peddling and smuggling.
Experts across India acknowledge, sometimes sheepishly, that the statistics on child trafficking are at best, highly varied, and at worst, highly under reported. In 2006, the National Crime Records Bureau put the total number of child (below the age of 18) trafficking cases at 5,638. That same year, the Nithari killings of children sparked national outrage. The government admitted that at least 30,468 children had been reportedly missing across the country.
Mohammad Aftab, a child protection expert with Save the Children, makes a direct link between migration, agrarian neglect, the drying up of rural livelihoods and the increased incidence of “disguised” child trafficking in India. “The amount of displacement that has taken place in India in the last 15 years has never happened in human history,” he says.
One of the worst “source” states for child trafficking, West Bengal, is illustrative of this trend. Manabendra Nath Ray, state programme manager for West Bengal with Save the Children, says, “It starts in the villages and ends in the cities and happens through well-organised networks. Most people fall for the lure of money, jobs or marriage prospects.” He recalls the story of 12-year-old Bindu from East Midnapore District. Bindu fell into the trap because her mother required an operation, which her family could not afford. A close relative promised her a job in Delhi to help pay for it. In the next four years, Bindu was sexually exploited as domestic labour in Delhi and Bengaluru, trapped by a placement agency to act as a trafficker herself and finally rescued by the Jai Prakash Institute of Social Change.
Ray reveals the biggest challenge of their work: “Child trafficking has become a socially and culturally acceptable thing.” For a family that earns Rs 500 a month, even a one-time bait of Rs 5,000 can be an overwhelming temptation. But it would be simplistic to think that poverty is the only driver. Most parents are not aware that they are sending their children into harm’s way until it is too late, says Ray. They realise only when their kids stop sending money or stop calling. “They don’t have any idea of the grim reality of city life,” says Ray. West Bengal also bears out other telling linkages. Two-thirds of all trafficked children are girls. Eighty-six percent of those are primary school dropouts or have never been to school. The issues are similar in other big “source” states – Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh.
‘Our challenge is child trafficking has become a socially acceptable thing,’ says an expert
THE ONLY Indian law governing child trafficking, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, does not clearly define “trafficking” and is limited to only sexual trafficking, says noted child rights expert Enakshi Ganguly Thukral. The only government scheme for prevention of child trafficking named “Ujjwala”, put in place in December 2007 is “not grounded yet” says Aftab. Finally, experts argue that child welfare has simply never been a priority for law enforcement agencies, which are critical to curbing child trafficking.
And yet, there are uplifting success stories in both India and beyond – political advocacy that has led to a tightening of laws in the US, Mozambique and Bolivia, Apne Aap (self-help) through small social and economic cooperatives; Prerna (inspiration) through its pioneering work to assist victims of organised crime, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) through strong campaigns and Save the Children through all-inclusive village committees.
Bindu had fire in her belly. She planned an escape many times but didn’t succeed. When she finally found her window, by sheer chance, she burst into tears and pleaded, “If you can protect me, then I can cooperate.” But in the world’s largest democracy, luck should not have to be the main determinant of freedom, particularly for its most defenceless citizens.