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Politics

Indian society begins to tackle human trafficking

Not only do girls need to be rescued, society's attitude must be adjusted

Women wait and hope for customers outside closed brothels in a district of Nagpur, Maharashtra, in October 2016. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

NEW DELHI -- The eyes of a woman, in her mid-20s, brightened when she said she can now "tell everything to my parents."

I first met Sasha in 2013 while working on a report on human trafficking in India. "My parents must consider me dead," Sasha told me then.

Sasha replied to my questions, but idly. When I asked her if she wanted to meet her family again, she immediately said, "No." Having been forced into prostitution, she said her family would consider her a disgrace and refuse to accept her.

Sasha did not know her actual age. She said she was brought to Mumbai when she was 10, 11 or 12; she is probably in her mid-20s now.

Sasha, not her real name, was born and raised in a village in the Indian state of West Bengal. Located 1,600km east of Mumbai. A river ran through the village, and Sasha recalls going for swims in it with friends.

Her story goes like this: A man around 20 years old frequently visited the village to repair sewing machines, and Sasha developed a secret crush on him. On one visit, he proposed that the two elope to Kolkata, the state capital, then return to the village as a married couple two days later.

The two boarded a train, and when it arrived at their destination, Sasha recognized that the people around her were not speaking Bengali, the official language of West Bengal.

She was in Mumbai, not Kolkata.

According to her vague memory, one or two years later, Sasha was forced to start working at a dance bar in Mumbai and have sex with one or two men per night. She could not escape. The man would escort her to work every day, then be there when the bar closed to take her home. He banned her from going out alone.

A police raid freed her in 2006.

Sasha has greatly changed since the first time I met her. "I am now confident that I can tell everything to my parents," she told me at the end of January. "I can tell them I live here [in Mumbai] and what happened to me, everything."

Where did this confidence come from? Is it a result of a backstory she has given herself about being raised an orphan in Mumbai? Did it come from the woman who took the emancipated Sasha under her wing and helped Sasha find a husband?

"I will return home with my husband when I can get in touch with my parents," said Sasha, who got married in August. "I will then tell my real past to my husband and the godmother."

Sasha's decision to disclose her past coincides with advances in India's fight against its widespread human trafficking problem.

Over the past several years, state governments have set up expert teams to address the problem. The teams have been sharing information on traffickers and brothels who slave girls, said Jyoti Nale of Save the Children India, a nonprofit organization that has been helping women like Sasha find their way to normal lives for years now. 

First guilty verdict

Nagpur, an inland city in the state of Maharashtra, which stretches to India's west coast, is addressing human trafficking. A total of 500 victims have made accusations against their traffickers. Some of these accusations have been withdrawn, but 270 are still on record.

In 2016, the first ever guilty verdict was rendered in a Nagpur human trafficking case.

Also, in January 2015, police and other local government authorities shut down Ganga Jamuna, a red-light district in Nagpur where some 3,000 prostitutes used to ply their trade.

In general, adult women are still allowed to personally offer sexual services in India if they are at least 200 meters from public places. But nothing in the city is 200 meters away from public roads, and brothels have closed one after another, Nale said.

I decided to check out the situation myself and visited the central section of Ganga Jamuna one evening last autumn. I saw no other men around, but young women stood outside former brothels in a rather futile hope for customers.

The area used to have 150 prostitutes. Now, 50 or 60 still live in the closed brothels, offering their services only to regular customers, a local police officer said. The officer said he assumes these women continue to pay a certain percentage of their income to landlords, who were supposed to have quit the brothel business.

Even if the city were to eliminate all sex work -- including that involving minors -- victims of human trafficking would simply migrate elsewhere. Already, some young girls have been rescued from sexual servitude in Mumbai, also in the state of Maharashtra, after having been transferred from brothels in Ganga Jamuna.

Young sex slaves bring in a lot of money, and their owners can still move them just about anywhere in India.

Sex slave traffickers, brokers and owners face little risk in the country. Their costs are low and profits high. They have little fear of being arrested. This last fact is what must change if the trade is to be eliminated, Nale said.

That would only be a beginning, though. The victims of sex and human trafficking must be supported and helped to make their way back into society. And the tacitly accepted underworld activities must be exposed and fought across Maharashtra, Nale said.

Sasha now tells the story of her past a bit differently. In 2013, she reflected that she had left her village with a man whispering about marriage. In January, she looked back with a new perspective. "There's no reason why a girl of 10 to 12 years old would wish to marry," she said. "I was merely kidnapped."

According to the Global Slavery Index, compiled by Australia's Walk Free Foundation, India has 18.35 million "modern slaves" -- victims of human trafficking and child laborers. They represent 40% of the world's slave population.

India's labyrinth of human trafficking is dark and deep. This makes it easy for victims to get trapped and difficult for authorities and nongovernmental organizations to penetrate.

Helping victims and trying to make sure there will be no more will be a long and difficult process, one made up of a patchwork of approaches and compromises, trial and error.

 

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