When Prisha was first brought to the noisy, narrow streets of GB Road in India’s capital at the age of 16 she thought her suffering was over. Little did she know that the neighborhood was one of the largest brothel areas of New Delhi, notorious for sex trafficking.
Coming from a small village in in the eastern state of Jharkhand’s Dumka district, she only has bad memories of her childhood. “I was born into a broken family – my alcoholic father abused mother every day. She took out all of her anger and frustrations on me. She would beat me and curse me as the unwanted child that should have died on the day I was born … lack of money made things worse. Even one proper meal a day was a tough challenge and mostly we got to eat just wild roots.”
Now in her early 20s, Prisha, whose name has been changed for this article, never went to school and instead learned household chores to assist her mother, who worked as a maid and in the fields. Her father never beat her but he wasn’t affectionate either.
“Shortly after puberty, I was forced into a marriage I never wanted, with a much older man. I thought my husband would at least treat me well but my fate was cursed. He was worse than anything.”
That was when two autorickshaw drivers befriended her, luring her away with the promise of a lucrative seamstress job in Delhi.
Prisha is one of India’s multitude of sex slaves. The country, according to John Winterdyk, professor of criminology at the Canadian Mount Royal University, is the epicenter of human trafficking worldwide. Numbers from India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicate the phenomenon is on a steady upward trajectory: it has more than doubled, from 3,422 recorded cases in 2010, to 6,877 in 2015.
“But this is just a pixel out of the main picture,” Winterdyk explained at the recent 18th World Congress of Criminology, held in New Delhi. “Estimates point to about 200,000 victims in India but there could be more. It is one of the fastest growing and most profitable crimes. About 90% of the girls trafficked here are for the domestic sex trade.”
Crime rings thrive with the connivance of corrupt law enforcement officers: bribes, including sexual services, are routinely taken by police to protect brothel owners. Unsurprisingly, there is a low conviction rate. Of 11,720 arrests made for trafficking in 2015, only 2,139 individuals were convicted.
The prime destinations for female trafficking victims in India include Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Gujarat and Hyderabad, according to the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons Report. Nepali women and girls are increasingly being trafficked to Assam, Nagpur and Pune.
Away from the more overt red-light areas, gangs run their sex trade from small hotels, vehicles and huts, as well as covertly from residential complexes. Traffickers use mobile phones and the internet to hook clients up with women for sex.
Madhumita Pandey from the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, has studied some of patterns revealed by the stories of sex slaves in India. “Most of them are illiterate, poor girls who are lured with false promises of employment,” she says. Some are victims of sham marriages.
“Most of them are illiterate, poor girls who are lured with false promises of employment”
Poverty and a lack of education are clearly huge enabling factors. In 2014, the World Bank estimated that 179.6 million Indians were living on less than US$1.78 per day, based on 2011 purchasing power parity. A 2015 Unesco report, meanwhile, found that, in terms of absolute numbers, India was the country with the largest number of adults lacking basic literacy, at 287 million. India also has the second-highest number of child marriages, according to a UN report.
Most of the victims interviewed by Pandey, including Prisha, were minors when they were trafficked. “Victims are trafficked from public areas: bus or train transit stations,” she says. “Poverty, coupled with familial disruptions, makes these girls vulnerable to trafficking.
“Alcoholism, abandonment and debt issues are factors responsible for such disruptions. Most of the trafficked sex slaves are also victims of abuse at an earlier age.”
The term trafficking itself hides a multitude of horrors: it can involve kidnap, rape, illegal detention, prostitution and violence. Victims are often threatened with the murder of loved ones or dependents if they try to escape.
“I’d rather have my mother think that I am dead than to tell her what happened to me”
While it is unclear whether stricter punishments will deter perpetrators, rescue and rehabilitation efforts remain woefully ineffective. The 2016 TIP report points out that corrupt officials often tip off sex and labor traffickers to impede rescue efforts. Rehabilitation resources are extremely patchy.
But what awaits those who do manage to escape a life of slavery? For many the option of returning to their families is unthinkable. “No, I wouldn’t even dream of that,” says Prisha. “I’d rather have my mother think that I am dead than to tell her what happened to me. I blame myself for trusting those drivers and also for not trying to make things work with my husband. I know if I returned, the whole village will blackball me. No one will understand and that’s why I don’t even want to try.”