It’s one of India’s greatest shames and it is hidden in plain sight. In absolute terms, India has the largest number of modern-day slaves in the world, 18 million and counting.
In the Global Slavery Index, compiled by Australia-based rights group Walk Free Foundation, India is among the top four offenders in percentage terms, just behind North Korea, Uzbekistan and Cambodia, in the global hall of infamy.
This includes bonded labour, human trafficking, forced marriages, women coerced into prostitution or badly paid menial work. The most vulnerable among these are the children and that is what our cover story focuses on - the horrific underbelly of our so-called developed society, where children as young as 13 are sold for sex.
Children are not a vote bank, so their safety is not a concern for politicians, but there are other villains in this sordid tale. The police, the legal system, and society at large seem to have accepted that our children, especially girls, are unsafe, and in doing so have abandoned them. Even if they are rescued by well-meaning civil society activists, there is no established rehabilitation network to keep them off the streets and away from those who exploited them in the first case.
India Today cover story, I Was Sold at 14 as a Sex Slave, for November 13, 2017.
Meanwhile, those who trade in human flesh make money off the darkness that lies in some people’s souls.
Senior editor Shweta Punj, who did the story, found the plight of these children emotionally draining, but was also inspired by their courage and resilience in the face of such terrible adversity. India Today has been tracking the buying and selling of children for sex for a long time. In 2003, we put sexual slavery on the cover with a pregnant 13-year-old’s tale of abduction and coercion.
I am sorry to report that in the past 14 years, the situation has only worsened. According to an estimate by Nobel laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi’s NGO, Global March Against Child Labour, the black money generated by the enslavement of girls and women is $35 billion, but the damage is more than monetary.
Technology has aided this ghastly business, with traffickers using social media as a recruiting tool. Most victims continue to come from India’s poorest states - among them Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
What’s worse, according to Global March Against Child Labour, 70 per cent of Indian girls sold into sex slavery are between 16 and 18 and are kept in captivity for between 12 and 18 months on an average. According to another estimate, 40 per cent of sex workers in brothels across the country are minors.
Better policing has followed on the heels of better awareness about trafficking, but conviction rates for traffickers, at two to five per cent, are still abysmal. There is a multiplicity of laws and not enough enforcement. Rehabilitation is a challenge. This is not a problem that can have an overnight resolution. There is a deep seated misogyny at work which manifests itself in various ways - from the rape of little girls as young as five to sustained sexual harassment at the workplace.
A new Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2016 is under consideration - although experts say it focuses on prosecution at the expense of rehabilitation.
Punj, who wrote the story and did much of the reporting from Varanasi, says she is somewhat heartened that at least there is a national conversation around the issue now and the mindset has changed from victim-blaming to problem-solving.
Lawmakers need to read this heartbreaking and stomach-churning story of stolen childhoods. Perhaps it will spur them to act faster to eradicate this disgrace from our society.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, I Was Sold at 14 as a Sex Slave; November 13, 2017.)