Rescuing victims of sex-trafficking as child pornography in India rises

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Bangladesh girl
An unnamed girl, like this one in Bangladesh, faces the dangers of crossborder sex-trafficking into cities inside India starting at a young age. Image: Hannah Yoon

(WNN) Calcutta, West Bengal, INDIA, SOUTH ASIA: “It is estimated that 200,000 Bangladeshi children have been trafficked for sexual exploitation through the borders of [India’s] West Bengal and Assam States,” says a report from ECPAT International, which is working today to end child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes. “India is also used as a transit country for children trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh to Pakistan,” continues the report.

Sitting down with global human rights advocates Equality Now, a survivor of sex-trafficking in India named Ayesha tells a story of exploitation and courage. It also shows that everyone has dreams for the future that may start coming true.

When Ayesha was 13, she fell in love with a man who promised to marry her and nurture her dreams of being the top po-music singer in Bangladesh. She was never able to meet those dreams. Instead this man betrayed her innocent trust. In disguise as any teenager’s boyfriend, he was instead a seasoned and deceptive sex trafficker.

From Ayesha’s rural village in Bangladesh to Calcutta, India, known in the region as Kolkata the largest city in West Bengal, the journey can take hours by bus. Traveling through the night Ayesha and the man she called her ‘boyfriend’ arrived in Calcutta for what Ayesha hoped was a life filled with love and opportunity.

“My heart beat fast as we crossed the border in the darkness of night,” said Aleysha. “I had never been to a big city like Kolkata, and so I was distracted from the reality that I was leaving my family and my school. I was terrified of being caught, but thrilled at the prospect of settling down with the man I loved,” she continued.

But the man Ayesha loved sold her quickly and silently into one of the most devastating environments that exists for a young girl – a brothel.

In a country that has, according to the BBC news in April 2013, over 3 million sex-workers throughout the region, the percentage is very low that one young girl coming from poverty trapped inside the industry of sex-trafficking could ever find rescue.

“When we arrived, he told me he wanted to keep me safe with his aunt until my parents stopped looking for us,” outlined Ayesha. “In a few days, he would return for me. I was reluctant to see him go, but I trusted his decision. That night, in the glow of moonlight, I saw girls in short skirts and red lipstick standing in a line on the street. When a man approached one of them, she led him into her house,” Ayesha added.

Prostitution is currently legal in India, but child prostitution isn’t. Unbelievably brothels that sexually sell children continue to be largely unchecked in India, even as with the rise in public concern in a recent child rape case.

“The next morning, I asked his [my boyfriend’s] aunt about these girls,” outlined Ayesha. “She spoke to me in a hollow voice devoid of emotion. I was told that I had been sold to her by the man I loved, and that I would have to work off my debt by joining those girls each night.”

Young, alone, and with no resources or friends in a unfamiliar and intimidating city Ayesha tried in vain to escape. But it wasn’t that easy for the girl who once had dreams, music and ambition. Now she would only try to survive one-day-at-a-time.

“I tried to leave that dungeon many times. Memories still flash in my mind of my hair being pulled, of being dragged through the dirt streets by the brothel owner after a failed escape,” said Ayesha.

With a rising demand for virgins and sex-tourism in illegal sex-industries worldwide the median age of entry into forced-prostitution is getting younger. An alarming number of women who have been sex-trafficked into India enter the industry now at the age of 11. Despite the high prevalence of underage forced-prostitution, relatively very few cases of sex-trafficking are ever actually reported or prosecuted in India.

“I still remember that moment when my whole world shattered into pieces. I’ve been tortured and abused, and survived serious injuries inflicted by buyers and pimps, but nothing hurts as much as the pain of being deceived by the man I loved,” Ayesha admitted. “For a whole month, I resisted the ‘aunt,’ who I learned was really a brothel madam. The owner of the brothel grew impatient and raped me, as he did to all new girls. He ordered the brothel madam to beat me with a leather belt every day. I still bear these marks on my body,” Ayesha added. “I was kept locked inside a room, with no food or water, for days.”

In spite of the continued suffering, arrest rates for people accused of “kidnapping and abduction of women and girls” stands today at an incredibly low 3.7 percent. But some of this may be changing.

India’s Supreme Court is now taking the issue of sexual exploitation of women and girls and the use of pornography into their recent deliberations.

While the issue of pornography and it’s possible link to violence against women and girls brings with it a wide range of pro and con debate, there is a growing international concern that some of the production of global pornography may be rising from video recordings made inside brothels located in India.

Increased use of smart phones throughout India is also be giving rise to more viewing of international images that depict women and girls who are being raped, say experts.

“Children work in brothels and some living away from home have been used to make pornographic films,” outlines Jesse Eaves, the current Senior Policy Advisor for Child Protection at World Vision in Washington, D.C.

Another worry in India is that the use of force and violence depicted in pornographic images and videos is on a steep rise inside the region, say an increasing number of global child advocates.

“I believe that watching porn corrupts people, and many of the crimes that happen to women, girls and children, such as sex-trafficking, are mostly related to pornography,” said intellectual property rights attorney Kamlesh Vaswani recently to the New York Times.

Vaswani is the author of a petition that was presented to the Supreme Court of India asking that a complete ban be placed through the Supreme Court in India on watching pornography in the region. The argument for the ban is based on what Vaswani describes as the “damage” to society in India as “…child pornography is becoming more brutal and graphic.”

Without resources or enforced legal protections, teen girls in India who are currently trapped in brothels face innumerable points of danger. With the rise in local acts of sexual aggression, regional advocates fear that women and children working inside brothels have no other choice than to also be subject to increased levels of torture and exploitation.

“To ‘break me in,’ I was raped several times a night for nearly a month before the madam started selling me to men for money. It was typical for me to have ten to twelve buyers every night. They were usually abusive, treating me as if they owned my body. I have a deep scar on my neck from a knife blade, which I got trying to save a young girl in my house from being gang raped. It almost killed me,” shared Ayesha.

“Children sold in brothels often suffer from illnesses, exhaustion, malnourishment, infections, physical injuries, and sexually transmitted diseases,” says the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010. “Living conditions are poor and medical treatment is rarely available to them. Children who fail to earn enough income generally are subject to severe punishment such as beatings and starvation,”

While actual numbers are still difficult to obtain, government and NGO – Non-Governmental Organization reports are revealing that hundreds of thousands to millions of women and girls are currently being prostituted in India, many who are forced laborers working off debt bondage as victims of sex-trafficking like Ayesha.

“Later I would learn that my story was not unique. There were hundreds of us—young girls from Bangladesh, Nepal and other parts of India, sold into brothels. To keep us isolated the brothel owners forbid us to speak to girls in other houses. They were very afraid that we would form groups or befriend one another,” Ayesha added.

Child born inside a brothel in India
This girl child inside a brothel located in the Sonagachi red-light district of Calcutta, India was photographed by another child who also lived inside the brothels in 2004. This was part of a photo-taking project for Academy Award winning filmmaker Zana Briski. As one of the directors for the award winning documentary film “Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” Briski asked children living inside Songachi to carry around a camera and take pictures of whatever they felt like showing from inside their world. Image: NYCArthur

Ayesha gave birth to three children while in captivity.

When it became evident that the local pimps wanted to prostitute Ayesha’s oldest daughter she knew it was time to get out once and for all. But getting out wasn’t all that easy.

“I had three children in my captivity—two beautiful daughters and a son. My children were my treasure, yet my love for them was often accompanied by fear of what would become of them in the red light area,” outlined Ayesha. “As my children grew, it became hard for me to provide for them. My daughters had to drop out of school for financial reasons, while my son, who suffers from autism, needed my constant attention. The local pimps began to hint that I could make some money if I prostituted my two daughters. However, the pimps never touched them. All of the women in the brothel banded together to keep our children out of prostitution.”

With a campaign from Apne Aap, created in 2002 by former BBC journalist and filmmaker Ruchira Gupta, efforts to help Ayesha and her children to escape her traffickers met a level of success. Instead of becoming a generational victim of sex-trafficking Ayesha’s daughter is now, through professional career training, able to support her family. With her current position as supervisor for the first all-women run petrol (gas) station in Kolkata Ayesha’s daughter has been given a new life.

One of filmmaker/journalist Ruchira Gupta’s most significant contributions has been in international lobbying efforts that are still working today to help shift the blame away from sex-trafficking victims and on to the pimps, perpetrators and human traffickers in cases that are handled locally by police and inside court rooms.

“Every single prostituted woman I have met, wants to save her daughter from the same fate as herself. And they think someday society will stand by them, and create laws to protect them and their daughters, and hold accountable all those who rape, buy and sell her, says Rhira Gupta, President of Apne Aap. “They are constantly betrayed. One of the most repeated words that prostituted women use, is ‘Dhoka’. They feel betrayed by family members who let them go, pimps and agents who sell and buy them, clients who rape them and a society and a country which does not stand by them. A country which has ignored their absence of choices-simply because they were born poor, low-caste and girls.”

Amid the social outcry to end violence against women in India today, recently-deceased former Supreme Court of India Chief Justice J.S. Verma released a new legal investigative report in January 2013 a comprehensive outline with measures needed to India’s Parliament.

“…whether it is of children or women for various purposes, understated as immoral but in reality heinous. It now stands undisputed that one of the main reasons for human trafficking is for Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) of these children and women,” said former Chief Justice Verma’s report.

“Traffickers tend to work in groups and children being trafficked often change hands to ensure that neither the trafficker nor the child gets caught during transit. Different groups of traffickers include gang members, police, pimps and even politicians, all working as a nexus,” former Chief Justice Verma’s report added. “Trafficking networks are well organised and have linkages both within the country and in the neighbouring countries. Most traffickers are men. The role of women in this business [in India] is restricted to recruitment at the brothels.”

Physical trauma, drug addiction, depression, and anxiety are often the ‘after’ results of forced captivity under sex-trafficking.

Even after rescue a complex range of post-traumatic symptoms can persist for those saved from forced-prostitution. The road back to rehabilitation for many of the women who have suffered under entrapment and forced sexual labour can be a long one.

“Even though I cried, screamed for someone to help me, people just stood by watching, without even a look of sympathy,” continued Ayesha. “Tears stream down my face as I think back to that day. If even one man had tried to save me, my life would have been changed. But all of them stood there like mute spectators.”

Recently, the Government of India adopted new anti- trafficking provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 that criminalizes trafficking in accordance with the Palermo Protocol.

According to Equality Now, these important provisions don’t cover all the needs for anti-trafficking protections through legal reform. A letter of petition directed to the Government of India sponsored by Equality Now is now asking for updated amendments to be added to a law that has been on the books in India for 30 years. This Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) of 1956 is way over due to be updated, outlines Equality Now.

“The experience of being sold into prostitution by a person known and trusted is common around the world. Like Ayesha, most women are coerced, manipulated, tricked or forced into prostitution—all forms of trafficking. They are then held in debt bondage, intimidated and abused when they try to get out,” said Lauren Hersh, Director of Equality Now’s Trafficking Program. “Prostitution is not a choice when there is no viable alternative. And Ayesha and her daughter show that when poor women have opportunities, they readily choose other alternatives.”

Understanding the needs and human rights of women and girls who have been, and are today still, caught in the cycle of forced-prostitution through human trafficking is seen as a basic step for those who want to change laws for the better in India, say global advocates.

“When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape, but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist,” said Ayesha.


A tidal wave of trafficked girls crossing the border regions of India from Bangladesh, as well as Bhutan and Nepal, is enabling the destruction of young lives that often go without rescue. The daughters who are missing are often younger than 13 when they end up in the red-light district brothels throughout India. This story follows the efforts of sex-trafficking investigator Sam Kiley who follows an ocean of sex-slaves that are being trafficked from South Asia every year. The Indian town of Siliguri is one of the hubs of the international sex trade where every year, tens of thousands of young girls are abducted and sold into prostitution. This video has been produced by UK Channel 4 Unreported World video series covering the trafficking of children in India for the sex trade in Calcutta and Bombay.


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Additional sources for this story include Equality Now, Apne Aap, ECPAT International, BBC news, Ministry of Home Affairs – National Crime Records Bureau India, PRS Legislative Research India, Half the Sky Movement, U.S. Department of Justice, UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Telegraph India.


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