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Even Obama is talking about trafficking, when will we?

Guest Column

Ruchira Gupta

When US President Barack Obama made a milestone commitment against sex trafficking in New York on September 25, I was sitting in the audience wondering what it would take for the Indian Prime Minister to demonstrate the same commitment towards the most marginalised girls in my country.

In the middle of a busy election campaign and meetings at the United Nations General Assembly, the President took time out to speak on the subject — perhaps the most forceful speech ever on this topic by a world leader. President Obama referred to the fight against human trafficking as “one of the great human rights causes of our time,” and mentioned new steps to deal with a problem he called “barbaric and evil.”

He not only noted that human trafficking is a criminal activity that involves the buying and selling of human beings but squarely called it slavery. “When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family (girls my daughters’ age), runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists — that’s slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilised world.”

The Central Bureau of Investigation in a statement in 2009 said that there are at least three million prostituted women and girls in India of which 1.2 million are children. The National Human Rights Commission says the numbers are going up and the ages coming down. The latest reported case by the police is of a seven-year-old girl from Darjeeling.

Yet the Prime Minister, even in his second term, is silent on the subject. So is our own female chief minister, who could not have failed to notice the young girls with painted faces lined up in her own backyard on the Chetla bridge.

A stricter law to punish buyers of prostituted sex and traffickers is still pending in the Indian Parliament nearly 70 years after Independence despite repeated submissions by activists and victims of trafficking to parliamentarians and lawmakers. Such a law has been passed in Sweden, Norway and Iceland and has been found to act as a deterrent to the sex industry. The delay in the law only puts hundreds of more girls in harm’s way.

Even the existing law is hardly ever used to tackle the sex industry. Often the administration turns a blind eye to the size of the brothel districts, the violence on the young girls, and all the pimps and clients buying and selling little girls. But more tragic is the callousness of senior officers and ministers who simply ignore the miscarriage of justice by corrupt police officers.

I was witness in February this year to the illegal detention of a 14-year-old daughter of an anti-trafficking activist, Fatima, working for my NGO, Apne Aap, within hours of exposing an inter-state trafficking ring. Though the superintendent of police, Araria, Bihar, Shivdeep Lande, tried to falsify a first information report to justify his illegal actions, no action has been taken against him.

Neither the Child Welfare Committee, nor the National Committee for the Protection of Child Rights, nor the ministries of women and child in Patna or Delhi and nor the home minister who is in charge of police have even asked for an explanation of this illegal act. The same officer has found strength in this silence and gone on to arrest an anti-trafficking activist, Mohammad Kalam, on blatantly false charges.

These acts only prove that sex trafficking is one of the most invisible, unacknowledged and under-prioritised problems in our country. Perhaps because it affects more women than men, more girls than boys. Perhaps because we accept that prostitution is inevitable simply because we believe the myth that men have and are entitled to “unbridled” sexual desire and that some poor girls and women should always be sexually available to meet this desire. Or that sexual pleasure is only for men, associated with domination and not an equal physical exchange between women and men.

Of the 20 million victims that President Obama spoke about in his speech, 3 million are in India. I saw friends and fellow-activists in the room who were proud of their president for taking on an issue that they had struggled for. Our Prime Minister often takes the lead from friends in the US on economic and defence issues. I wonder when he will have the courage to do so on behalf of the most marginalised — the 14-year-old prostituted girl.

Ruchira Gupta is the founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots movement to end sex trafficking. She is a Calcutta girl and former journalist with The Telegraph.