Are India’s 12 million trafficked children doomed to anonymity? An Indian advocacy group working for the protection of children, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and Campaign Against Child Trafficking, recently decided to give these children a face by organising a public hearing – the first of its kind in the 70 years of India’s independence. Most of the children invited to give testimonies before a jury of eminent people were not afraid to speak out about the trauma they had suffered during their captivity.
One girl informed the audience she was 13 years old when she was abducted by three men on her way to the market. They took her to their house where she was repeatedly raped. She was also pumped with steroid injections to make her look grown up. She was then sold to a brothel owner operating from Siliguri, a small town in West Bengal, who forced her into prostitution and drug peddling.
Her distraught parents had filed a missing person report, but the police refused to take action. The parents finally contacted an NGO Shanti Vahini who helped to track the child from the red light area of Siliguri.
She does not expect to receive any justice. “The three accused have been released on bail. They are threatening my mother to withdraw the case.( Her father died of shock during the period of her captivity) I have appeared in the special court eight times already. Sometimes the lawyers are missing; at other times the judge is not there. I have no strength to fight this case,” the girl testified.
Another girl was just 14 years old and living in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal when she was lured to Delhi by her neighbour who had promised her a good job. Since most of these girls come from impoverished families, the attraction of a steady income is a strong enticement.
En route to Delhi, he sold her to a brothel owner called Auntie in Dhanbad, who in turn sold her to a group of men who had plans to sell her yet again.
Fortunately, a cop spotted her and took her to a shelter home from where her parents were contacted. She pointed out, “My neighbour has been freed on bail while my case has been pending before the court for the last 10 years.”
Her problems have not ended because while her mother welcomed her return, her villagers maintained she had been ‘defiled’ and, therefore, was not allowed to stay in the village. Another 14 year old was enticed by an acquaintance on the pretext of marriage. He brought her to Delhi in a drugged state and kept her locked in a house. “I was forced into sexual slavery,” she said.
Young boys also confessed to being economically and sexually exploited with parents unwilling to lodge complaints with the cops as it could boomerang on them. Bharti Ali, co-founder of HAQ, believes the public hearing provides a platform where survivors can share what goes unseen and unheard of in our society. ” The culture of non-reporting and shame attached to prostitution and sexual exploitation needs to be broken,” she said.
It was for this reason that the girls refused to cover their faces while speaking before members of the public.
“We want people to know how much we have suffered. Why should we feel ashamed about what has happened to us; was it really our fault,” asked one of the girls.
India remains trapped in a conservative mindset and some members of the audience at the hearing questioned why these girls were allowed to go public with their `horrific’ tales. Others staged a walkout.
Defending the public hearing, Ali maintained: “The main purpose of the hearing was to bring together the Campaign Against Child Trafficking partners as well as rescued victims of child trafficking in order to present their voices to the government.”
In 2000, Ali had undertaken a national study on `Child Trafficking in India’. Rising poverty levels are one of the main reasons for this spurt in child trafficking. Data from the National Record Crime Bureau confirms India has seen a 65 per cent spike in child trafficking during the last decade.
With one child being trafficked every eight minutes within the country, we have emerged as a global hub for trafficking. Young girls and boys are increasingly being trafficked to other countries including those in Africa. The main reason for this is the apathy of the authorities matched by the indifference of the general public.