In his book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide , Nicholas D. Kristof, in one part highlights a conversation he has with a border patrol guard at the Nepal-India border. Kristof witnesses many trucks full of girls passing through without being stopped and inquires about it. The guard responds, "These girls are sacrificed so we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe...these are peasant girls. They can't even read. They're from the countryside. This way the good Indian-middle class girls are safe."
UNICEF has estimated that 50 per cent of all trafficking victims worldwide are children and that as many as two-thirds of these at some point are forced into sex trade fuelled by greed, lust and poverty. There are nearly 3 million people who are trafficked in India. Out of these a shocking 1.2 million are children. According to the National Human Rights Commission, only, 10 per cent of human trafficking in India is international, while almost 90 per cent is interstate and 40 per cent of women in prostitution are inducted when they were less than 18 years of age. The recently released Justice Verma Report on trafficking in India has concluded that one of the primary reasons for human trafficking is for commercial sexual exploitation amongst both children and women. This view has also been upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of Bachpan Bachao Andolan versus Union of India.
An internationally accepted definition of trafficking, as defined by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UN TIP Protocol) is “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” by using “force, coercion, abduction, fraud and deception” to control and exploit another person, including, but not limited to, sex exploitation. Article 23 of the Constitution of India prohibits human trafficking, highlighting that citizens have the right to be protected from exploitation. The ongoing sex trade in India not only undermines the Constitution but violates anti-trafficking laws as well. In parallel it is opposed to many international treaties against trafficking that have been ratified by India.
As stated by the Supreme Court in the case of Bachpan Bachao Andolan versus Union of India, “Trafficking in women and children has become an increasingly lucrative business especially since the risk of being prosecuted is very low. Women and children do not usually come to the brothels on their own will, but are brought through highly systematic, organised and illegal trafficking networks run by experienced individuals who buy, transport and sell children into prostitution.” The traffickers prey the unwanted and the poor. Globally, hundreds and thousands of girls are tricked, kidnapped or extorted each year into being taken across borders and sold into the trade. What awaits them is severe torture and exploitation. False promises of jobs in the cities to parents who are penniless seem like perfectly woven dreams. Journeys are made across countries and states into cages. In India, girls as young as eight are being trafficked every day. Locked in rooms, they are repeatedly raped and beaten into submission. In many cases the damage done is irreversible. Rejected and abandoned by families and loved ones, they resign to a life in the brothels. Over time the sexual abuse becomes part of their life. Driving trafficking is rampant lack of implementation of regulations and also shocking societal beliefs like intercourse with a minor; especially a virgin, can cure one of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. There are still certain sections of the Indian society like the Bedia community from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh that sanction the practice of forced sexual exploitation of women. Majority of women in these communities are pushed into the flesh trade willingly. Further, the racket is made worse by the half-hearted response of the police and their attitude towards crimes against women. In many cases there are inordinate delays in filing preliminary FIRs and conducting investigations, leading to thousands of girls never being found again.
Despite high prevalence, only a handful of cases related to sex trafficking are brought to light. In a report by the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 2011, very few cases of sex trafficking are actually reported and prosecuted. The arrest rate for people accused of “kidnapping and abduction of women and girls” in 2011 stood at a dismal 3.7 per cent.
There is no dearth of laws in India to deal with this. The challenge is that the laws are highly segregated in many codes like the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) of 1956 and Indian Penal Code amongst others. Section 5 of the ITPA states, ‘procuring, inducing or taking a person for the sake of prostitution’ is a punishable offence. However this again is plagued by low rate of prosecution and conviction. The law within itself houses an anomaly. Under Section 8 of the same Act, women and children who fall within the ambit of this Act are primarily arrested under the label of ‘prostitutes’. It is ironic that though the law is supposed to protect them, it is the very same law that allows for their arrest and condemnation. Difficult to fathom, but true, the word ‘trafficking’ is not defined in the ITPA and it has witnessed no amendments in the last thirty years.
The recent Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 is a positive step in the right direction. It prohibits all forms of trafficking, including physical exploitation, sexual exploitation and slavery. The law prescribes stringent punishment of minimum seven years for trafficking, which can be extended up to life imprisonment. In this landmark decision, now a FIR has to be lodged for every missing child and most importantly the presumption is that the child has gone missing for kidnapping or trafficking. This is revolutionary because for the first time there is presumption of a crime unless proven otherwise. This is ray of light as one child goes missing every one minute in India.
(The writer is with Global Health Strategies, New Delhi)