The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Trading in women and children for purposes of prostitution has been going on in the Indian subcontinent for a long time. Of late, it has assumed alarming dimensions and taken the form of an organized crime, with surveys by non-governmental organizations revealing horror stories about young girls from Nepal and Bangladesh brought into the flesh trade in India. India serves as a source, transit as well as a destination country for trafficking in women and girls.

A 1994 report of the ministry of human resources development, based on the survey conducted by the Central Social Welfare Board in six metropolitan cities of India, estimated that there were two million prostitutes, of which 20 per cent were children. At any time, about 20,000 girls are transported from one part of the country to another for prostitution. However, these estimates are not based on very reliable data. An action research programme on trafficking in women and children has now been taken up by the National Human Rights Commission for assessing the magnitude of the problem.

According to a UNICEF review, between 5,000-7,000 girls from Nepal are trafficked every year to India. But these estimates are based upon anecdotal information, and there is urgent need for collecting hard data on cross-border trafficking from Nepal to India. Studies by NGOs like Agro Forestry and Basic Health Cooperatives Nepal show that traffickers operate through various networks within and outside the country. In some instances, these networks are backed up by organized criminals, politicians and other influential players.

The modus operandi of the traffickers in Nepal includes luring the victims by promise of good jobs and often by fraudulent marriages — an estimated 35 per cent of trafficked girls and women are brought into India this way. The parents and relatives of trafficked women and girls are sometimes duped or collude with the traffickers. India often acts as a transit point for the traffickers, who take these women via India to Hong Kong, Thailand and the Persian Gulf countries.

Along with men, women also play important roles in luring girls, promising them lavish lifestyles and attractive jobs provided they run away from their homes. The prevalence of the dowry system also compels many poor families to avoid formal marriages of their daughters. These parents are often persuaded by traffickers to hand over their daughters for “dowryless” marriages.

The Indo-Nepal border is a long and porous one with 14 legal entry points. Under the 1950 treaty between the two countries, the citizens of both are guaranteed “equal treatment including the same privileges in the matter of residence, participation in trade and commerce”. In practice, this means that there is no immigration control for Nepalese travelling or migrating to India and hence no maintenance of record. The peak trafficking months in Nepal are between June and August, preceding harvest, when many villages in Nepal experience acute poverty.

Trafficking in Nepal is an organized industry operated by well-organized gangs. From remote villages, girls are brought to Kathmandu and then taken to guest houses and carpet factories and from there to border towns where they are sold to the brokers. The brokers take them to different places in India where they are sold to brothel-owners for up to Rs 50,000 each. With the increasing vigilance by some NGOs in Nepal, detours are also resorted to, or traditional routes are abandoned. There is very little anti-trafficking surveillance in most of the exit points. The role of Nepal’s political parties in encouraging trafficking has been brought to light in the booklet, Rape for Profit by Human Rights Watch, Asia. It mentions that in Nuwakot district, traffickers reportedly made contributions for election campaigns of politicians in return for protection.

Much the same process is followed in procuring girls from Bangladesh. The Border Security Force personnel patrolling the 4,100 kilometre-long border are insufficient in numbers and not effective in maintaining strict vigilance. There are also evidences of their colluding with traffickers.

Prostitution and domestic labour are the main purposes for which women and children are trafficked out of Bangladesh. Research by some NGOs in Bangladesh shows that most of the victims are members of large families. Unmarried, divorced and separated women are most vulnerable, easily falling into the trap of traffickers. The findings of the Bangladesh Women’s Lawyer Association in 1996 revealed that only 14 per cent of trafficked women could just sign their names. Another study in 1997 revealed that three lakh Bangladeshi children work in brothels in India and 4,500 women and children are trafficked to Pakistan every year.

Organized traffickers in Bangladesh remain well protected and operate with a fair amount of impunity. The number of traffickers arrested seldom reflects the magnitude of the problem. In 1997, only 120 individuals had been arrested in Bangladesh for trafficking. Traffickers also develop a nexus with border patrolling staff and the police. According to an Asian Development Bank study, after crossing to India, women are kept in places in West Bengal and Orissa. After being “sorted and graded” they are sold to pimps and sent to Calcutta, Mumbai, Agra and the Gulf. Ironically, the victims, when offered jobs abroad, are sometimes asked by the traffickers to pay their travel expenses. In this way, women actually pay for being trafficked.

However, it is necessary to bear in mind that trafficking across the border provides only 10 per cent of the trafficked women and children in India. So the bigger challenge still is to combat trafficking within the country.

Despite public acknowledgement of the problem, there has not been any organized multilateral effort to control cross-border trafficking yet. The governments of India, Nepal and Bangladesh have not taken any draconian steps to address the problem so far. The problem is crying out for regional cooperation. The last convention of the south Asian association for regional cooperation in January 2002 even talked of “Preventing and combating trafficking in women and children for prostitution” in terms of prosecution of traffickers, rehabilitation and repatriation of the victims and extradition of the criminals.

A few immediate steps can be taken to deal with the problem of cross-border trafficking. First, the governments, in cooperation with NGOs, can launch mass information campaigns. Second, community participation must increase in order to effectively reduce trafficking. Some sort of community policing must be developed. In Nepal, an NGO, Maiti Nepal, is using this strategy successfully in Jhapa district. Cooperation from the police and the administrations are vital in combating this problem.

Third, gender sensitization and psychological training of law enforcement agencies, particularly of those working in the border areas and police stations, are necessary. Law enforcement mechanisms have to be strengthened both in the source and destination countries to be able to penalize traffickers, procurers and other illegal service providers. A nexus between police and other functionaries of criminal justice system and the NGOs of the source and destination countries has to be built so that trafficked women and children can be rescued and rehabilitated. Trading in innocent women and children is an unfrogiveable violation of human rights and should be tackled with an iron fist.

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