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Flight from burden and bondage

Contai, May 17: Malati Giri, around 14 years old, has seven sisters. Almost two years ago, a man came to their mud hut at Bijoynagar, East Midnapore, and told her father Netai he had a job for Malati. He turned the agent down. But when the man directly approached the impressionable student of Class VI, she couldn't resist.

Independence and a future in the big city just a train ride away or life in a kuchcha home, working in the fields in a small village near Contai accessible only on foot or a two-wheeler' Malati's choice was not difficult.

Suraj Jana, the agent who has lured away many a girl from her village, wasted no time is whisking Malati away. 'He told me I would live like a queen and that I wouldn't have to work much,' she remembers. The bubble was quick to burst. She slaved round the clock, was beaten and burnt. Her bright eyes tell of private horrors over eight months of servitude she will not speak of.

Driven to the brink, Malati jumped over the gate one afternoon and convinced a rickshawallah to take her to the nearest thana, where a lady officer heard her out. 'She said that since I could not go back home anymore, I could work for her.' A month later, Malati was so miserable that the officer put her on a train to Howrah. She made it back home, safe, and is now getting ready to go back to school.

'No daughter of mine should work in anyone's house. She should study and be at home. I am there to take care of her,' says Netai, 45, a small-time vegetable trader who beams at the mention of his fourth daughter's fighting spirit.

Girls like Malati ' bubbling with life, with a firm handshake and sparkling eyes ' have just enough education to have a decisive mind of their own. For girls like her, growing up with the knowledge that sooner or later they will be put to dead-end work after years of balancing boring lessons and hard work, Delhi sounds good.

Most girls, however, are sent away by hapless parents. Some come back safe, blinding the rest to the risks. Boys are rarely sent away. They are put to use on the land, kept close to home. In rural Contai, most families have small plots of their own, with average earnings hovering around Rs 1,000 a month. Some would also work on larger landholdings of better-off farmers in the area. Children work in a nearby brick kiln, others tie bidis at home. There are no houses locally where they can be put to work. Once, migration meant Calcutta and barely Rs 500 a month.

'A lot of girls see domestic work as just a stop-gap,' explains Shivani Bhardwaj of Nirmala Niketan, an NGO facilitating safe migration. 'Quite a few are sent to work for a while to earn enough money for their own dowry,' she adds.

The same hopes that are taking children farther and farther from home, to places where they don't know the language and have no one to turn to, leave them more vulnerable to trafficking into prostitution and abuse. Once in Delhi, they are often offered more lucrative jobs, leading them down unknown paths ' prostitution being just one of them.

'Who is bothered about these voiceless, powerless kids' asks Bharti Sharma, chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee, Delhi. Not the agencies and the agents, not the employers, not the police or panchayats, which have regularly shirked responsibility for what is considered the accepted way of the rural world.

'How will I do anything' I am poor. Oi shob thana pulisher kotha chharo' (Forget about the police). They will only take money from us,' frets a helpless voice in an angry mob at Paushi village.

They have just heard Jamuna Das's story. Last year, she was taken to Delhi where she was beaten up for not doing her work properly. She was 13 at the time.

Sujata Manna listens, pretty eyes widening into pools of fear as she hears the tales of terror. The Class VI student knows there is a painful little separating her from Jamuna. She stands in a faded red dress, clutching a wisp of a tree. She could be next.

And even if she isn't, will she be any better off'

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