Children and Women for Sale

To be born poor in our world is to be born vulnerable and in danger of exploitation of one kind or another; to be incarnated female and poor is to greatly intensify the risks. If you are born a girl to parents of tea-pickers in Assam in North Eastern India (earning as little as US $1.50 a day) there is a good chance you will be sold to a local recruitment ‘agent’ by your loved ones for around $50, he will sell you on to a city ‘employer’ for up to $800 and into a life of abuse and suffering. When Elaina Kujar was 14, she was trafficked to Delhi from the Lakhimpur district of Assam and spent four years as a sex slave.

The Guardian 20/07/2013 reports that her owner “would sit next to her watching porn in the living room of his Delhi house, while she waited to sleep on the floor. “Then he raped me,” she says, looking down at her hands, then out of the door”. It is thought there are hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as 12 years old, being sold into slavery of this kind in the capital. It is a brutal picture repeated more or less throughout India, where there are early signs that the ‘economic miracle’, which has fueled widespread inequality, is beginning to unravel.

Trafficking of persons constitutes the third largest global organised crime (after drugs and the arms trade) and it’s growing year on year. The United Nations (UN), define trafficking as “any activity leading to recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or a position of vulnerability”. It is a $10 billion a year criminal enterprise fuelled by a poisonous cocktail of factors, including ECPAT, state, “poverty, uneven development, official corruption, gender discrimination, harmful traditional and cultural practices, civil unrest, natural disasters and lack of political will to end it”. The interrelated primary causes stemming from one underlying source – social injustice.

Almost 80% of all worldwide trafficking is for sexual exploitation, with an estimated 1.2 million children being bought and sold into sexual slavery every year, and India is the poisonous hub, for Asia, and, some say, the world. End trafficking in India and the worldwide epidemic in human suffering caused by this crime will be greatly reduced. Each year millions of women and children are trafficked in India, which according to the US State Department (USSD) is “a source, destination and transit” country for “men women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking”. Whilst the vast majority (90%), remain within the country, moving from one state to another, some find their way to the Gulf States, as well as America and Europe. In amongst the reams of material on trafficking in India, I read the staggering government statistic, stating that a child goes missing somewhere in the country every eight minutes. Almost 35,000 children were officially reported missing in 2011 (latest figures), over 11,000 of them were from West Bengal, however it is thought only 30% of cases are reported.

Although most missing children are trafficked into commercial sex work, according to the USSD, “the forced labor of millions of its citizens constitutes India’s largest trafficking problem; men, women, and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and embroidery factories”. Trafficking in India is a violent, complex issue fuelled by a range of factors: economic injustice and social inequality, harmful cultural attitudes and regional gender imbalances, with corruption amongst government officials and police the facilitating mechanism, which allows trafficking of children and women to not only continue, but to expand, illegal brothels to flourish and traffickers to go unpunished. Women and girls are the main victims, trafficked for purposes of prostitution, forced marriage, as well as domestic work, which often entails sexual abuse.

The vast majority find themselves working in India’s sprawling Commercial Sex Industry (CSI), which according to the government, has about 3 million prostitutes, of which 40% are children – under 18 year-olds, and they say there is growing demand for younger and younger girls – partly because of the high level of HIV/Aids amongst prostitutes; 70% of those working in Mumbai are thought to have the virus. Sexual exploitation through sex tourism, child sex tourism, pedophilia and prostitution in places of religious pilgrimage and other tourist destinations are all on the increase.

Gender discrimination is prevalent throughout India and sexual abuse (including molestation and rape) of women in many parts of the country is widespread. Two recent incidents of rape (notably of middle class women) have captured the media’s attention and to some extent highlighted the issue; the Delhi gang rape on a bus in the city of a 23 year-old physiotherapy student in December 2012, who subsequently died of her injuries, and the recent violent rape in Mumbai of a young intern photojournalist. Rape is but the loudest of a range of atrocities women in India face, many of which feed into trafficking in the country. The BBC report that “police records from 2011 show kidnappings and abductions of women were up 19.4%”, so too “women being killed in disputes over dowry payments by 2.7%, torture by 5.4%, molestation by 5.8% and trafficking by an alarming 122% over the previous year”.

In addition to trafficking for prostitution, girls and women are bought and sold into forced marriages in areas where there is a deficit of women, (and where practices such as wife swapping amongst brothers are reported) due to female infanticide; the violent act of killing a baby girl in the womb. It is estimated that 10 million Indian girls have been aborted in the past two decades The Lancet report, “due to an overwhelming desire for sons and fear of dowry payments”. Punjab and Haryana in the North of the country have the highest proportion of missing girls at birth, others have a surfeit, in the last year e.g. “15,000 women from Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh”, India Today (26/08/2013) report, were trafficked into Rajasthan, where female infanticide, despite government ambiguity on the subject, is known to occur.

Girls lucky enough to survive pregnancy and early childhood – when babies can be suffocated or drowned within “24 hours of a baby’s birth… by the mother or the midwife”, The Raw Story 3/02/2012 state, face a life of discrimination and prejudice, violence and exploitation. The dowry system that demands parents of a bride pay substantial amounts to the groom is a major cause of female infanticide. “We have to give gold, silver, cash, vessels, beds, television sets, air coolers, clothes to the groom’s family and also arrange for a three-day village feast during a daughter’s wedding. We have to start saving for the dowry since the day a daughter is born. I will have to sell my land to get them married,” a mother in Rajasthan said.

Trafficking of children, (half of whom are between 11 and 14 years of age) and women is a plague of the poor, the vast majority of victims, India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), says, “belong to socially deprived sections of society, including Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, etc.”, and shockingly, ”children from drought-prone areas and places affected by natural or human-made disasters”. The poor and conflict-torn Northeastern states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Chhattisgarh are high source areas, where victims are transported from village home to city hell via a hectic hub, Kolkata in West Bengal is one such criminal centre. ECPAT relay the story of Deepa, a 15 year-old girl from a village outside Kolkata, her horrific experiences mirror those of many. Drugged by a woman, she was kidnapped and sold into CSW. “I was told that I would have to become a prostitute”, Deepa protested and “was beaten so much, my whole body was covered in bruises, then they used hot iron rods to hit me – eventually I had to agree to it”.

She was imprisoned and guarded by the sister of the woman who sold her; “my day began at six in the morning and I had about 12 to 14 customers on a daily basis and my day ended at 3am”. She escaped when a client allowed her to use his phone and call her parents. Trafficked children, NHRC found, are “subjected to physical and sexual abuse” and treated as slaves, with debt bondage one of many tools employed to trap children into perpetual servitude. Debt or bonded labour, the NGO Anti-Slavery states, “is probably the least known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people”. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates there to be a minimum 11.7 million people in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of whom, are in debt bondage. Poverty and criminal exploitation lies at the heart of bonded labour. Often without land or education, people desperate for the cash required for daily survival sell their labour and their life, in exchange for cash. This account from an Adivasi (indigenous) women is typical; “My original debt was 1,563 rupees (just £18). I was promised an annual salary of more than 15,630 rupees, but I worked for almost four years before my landlord agreed to pay me anything. When I complained about not getting paid, he called the police to beat me up”. Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal in India, the government (as this account records and Anti Slavery make clear), is unwilling “to enforce the law, or to ensure that those who profit from it are punished”.

Young girls fetch the highest prices in the city brothels, where the madams and pimps are concerned about one thing only – making money, no matter the human suffering. On the rare occasion that a victim is found and rescued, and a prosecution brought, children commonly refuse to testify due to fear of retribution by traffickers, who may be family members or ‘friends’. Freed from the horrors of the red light districts, girls who have worked as prostitutes are shunned by their parents. Ostracised by their families, and excluded from society many women, made to feel guilty by community prejudice have little choice but to seek refuge within the world of commercial sex work where they have been imprisoned or in some cases become agents for traffickers, who prey on vulnerable families offering them false hope and a way out of the economic prison in which they find themselves.

The BBC 9/01/2013 spoke to an unnamed trafficker in Kolkata, who said, “I traffic 150 to 200 girls a year, [and demand is rising] starting from age 10, 11 and older, up to 16, 17”, making around $1000 per child. He has agents working in the source areas, who promise parents the girls will find work in Delhi, then they are sold to “placement agencies”, with no regard to what happens to the children, it is after all just a business to such ruthless, greedy men and women. Local politicians and “Police are well aware of what we do. I have to tell police when I am transporting a girl and I bribe police in every state – in Calcutta, in Delhi, in Haryana”.

One such girl was 13-year-old Rukhsana from West Bengal, kidnapped in January 2012 when three men pushed her into a car as she walked home from school. “They showed me a knife and said they would cut me into pieces if I resisted”. After a terrifying three-day journey in cars, buses and on trains, they reached a house in the northern Indian state of Haryana, where Rukhsana was sold to a family of four – a mother and her three sons. She was confined to the house for a year, humiliated, beaten and routinely raped by the eldest of the three sons.

Children and women trafficked are at risk of all manner of ills, from unwanted pregnancy to HIV/Aids, cervical cancer, severe physical injury, violence, drug abuse and more, not to mention the emotional trauma and long term psychological impact. Educational programmes are required to alter destructive cultural practices that contribute to outdated gender attitudes and, whilst NGOs working with victims are offering essential support, it is the Indian government that must act to implement the plethora of regulations outlawing trafficking and associated criminality in the country including Police and official corruption. Such urgent and essential measures would certainly help to reduce the epidemic of trafficking in India. However for there to be fundamental lasting change, the extreme levels of inequality and social injustice within Indian society need to be addressed, and, (as the visionary Brandt Report made clear), the most effective way to do this is through the equitable sharing of resources, knowledge and wealth.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at:

Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India.  E:  W: