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Childhood for sale

Shriya Mohan | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on July 28, 2017

When parents turn perpetrators In the Bedia community the birth of a girl child is celebrated for the income she will bring home from the sex work she will be made to do (representational photo)   -  The Hindu/RV Moorthy

Trapped The Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Childline helpline gets two to three calls a month from children who want to break free from child marriage or prostitution enforced by their own parents   -  Vivek Bendre

In Agra, girls who are barely pre-pubescent are groomed for sex work and trafficked by their families. A ground report on the eve of the World Day against Trafficking in Persons

At 10 on a hot July morning, a 15-year-old with close-cropped hair walked into one of Agra’s police stations and reported her mother. “She’s trying to sell me,” she said in a small but defiant voice, to the first officer she met. The police didn’t take her too seriously. Children tend to lie and exaggerate, especially when they crave attention, they reasoned.

Sneha’s* mother Sona* is a sex worker. “She would go to hotels to give maalish (massage),” Sneha tells me, recounting how her mother would wait for a call from the dalal (tout) before venturing out at night with a gang of women. She usually returned in the wee hours. Half of what she earned went to the dalal. After separating from Sneha’s father some years ago, Sona married twice again and currently lives with her third husband, Ravi*. A heavy drinker and herself a victim of physical abuse, she routinely abused her daughter. “Three months ago, my mom introduced me to a man she called her fourth husband. But then Ravi called and apologised for beating us up, so we went back to him,” says Sneha, her brown eyes lowered and staring intently at her red kurta, as if to make sense of its pattern of wild flowers.

To escape the abuse, last October she decided to go live with her father and his second wife in Delhi. “We arrived on Dhanteras. After six months with my father, I was made to meet a 35-year-old man, who was introduced as my soon-to-be-husband,” the child says. Her father had been promised a four-wheeler and ₹2 lakh in return. Seeing no other way out, one muggy April night she escaped from her father’s house and boarded a bus to Nizamuddin Station. Squeezing her way into a sweaty unreserved compartment, she finally arrived at Agra Cant station and called her mother. “Where do I come?” Sneha asked.

Having no fixed place as home, her mother worked at different kothis (homes) each month, and Sneha was often left behind to live there and do domestic chores such as clean and mop the floors.

After being moved around for three months, living first with a distant relative, then Ravi and later Sona’s ‘fourth husband’, Sneha was told about 15 days ago that she was soon to be married. “Is it the same man I ran away from?” she asked, only to be told, “No, it’s someone else. You’ll have fun. It’s just that you can never come back to see me.” Recalling some talk she had overhead earlier, about a four-wheeler and some money changing hands, Sneha’s suspicions were aroused. “Are you selling me?” she confronted her mother.

Finally, when she was beaten to a pulp over some runny dal she had prepared, she fled home on the spur of the moment. She chopped her long hair into a crew cut to rid it of lice. That’s when she gathered the guts to walk into a police station and seek help. This was her last wild card.

By the time Neeraj Chouhan, an activist with the NGO Chetna which is in charge of implementing the Central Government’s Childline helpline across Agra, spotted Sneha at the police station, the police had already called the child’s mother. “When home becomes a place that harms, not protects, how can we send her back home?” Chouhan argued with the police. After much persuasion they agreed for a medical examination and for the case to be presented to the Child Welfare Committee. “I’ll go anywhere and do anything you ask me to. But I will not go back home,” Sneha said for the umpteenth time that day, leaning into my recorder for all of us to hear.

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Agra’s infamy

Unicef defines child trafficking as an instance where any person under 18 is recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received for the purpose of exploitation, either within or outside a country.

There were 9,104 trafficked children in 2015, 27 per cent more than in 2014, according to the National Crime Records Bureau's (NCRB) 2016 report; the highest number of trafficking cases was reported in West Bengal, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. A State like Uttar Pradesh (UP), where trafficking is steadily rising in cities such as Agra and Lucknow, is also infamous for crimes against women, accounting for 10.9 per cent of all cases reported countrywide.

“Agra has been a prostitution hub since medieval times,” says the district protection officer Luvkush Bhargav. While sex trade is legal in designated spots in the city such as Kashmiri Bazaar, it is illegal to run it out of homes or hotels. “We do regular raids at hotels and other unauthorised centres that function covertly as massage parlours,” he says.

But, clearly, the criminals are coming up with newer methods to outwit the law enforcers.

In a case of abject administrative neglect in June this year, 48 girls from Agra’s Nari Niketan (women’s shelter home) who were rescued from brothels, were released back to their traffickers. Pretending to be relatives, the traffickers managed to convince the girls, many of them minors, to return to them.

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Grooming them young

Dolly’s* musty home, located among the brick-walled alleys of Agra’s Khurd Basai, has the pungent sting of freshly cut onions. At 1 pm, a group of girls aged anywhere from 15 to 25 are getting dolled up in the opposite room, eyeing us suspiciously. Dolly’s 17-year-old niece Pooja*, who lived with her in the joint family, went missing last month. But her family didn’t file an FIR. She was rescued from a dance bar in Mumbai by Prerna, a sister NGO of Chetna.

Dolly and Pooja belong to the Bedia tribal community, which has traditionally depended on sex work for a living. “It is our clan’s tradition that we have been doing for centuries. Why should we give it up?” asks Dolly. The community is spread across Rajasthan and UP. It celebrates the birth of a girl child, as she will soon become a bread-winner. The men — fathers, brothers and sons — are destined to be their pimps. Some of these men marry outside the community and force the women into sex work, making it another form of trafficking.

The girls are groomed for sex work when they are barely pre-pubescents. They are made to watch pornography by their mothers and aunts, and their bodies are injected with the growth hormone oxytocin (freely available in drugstores) to ensure they develop an adult physique faster than normal. Girls in their early teens look like 18-year-olds. Sexually-transmitted diseases are rampant and they are all too often victims of sexual violence.

“We send our girls far away from us, so that they can practise prostitution without a feeling of shame and also stay away from family members who might take advantage of them,” says Dolly.

The Bedias have one rule. The girls will be given the choice to either marry and settle down, or become sex workers and never marry. “Although it sounds democratic, the truth is they are too young to be making that choice. By then they have been deprived of schooling and brainwashed to believe that this can be their only way of life,” says Narendra Parihar, Childline coordinator for Agra.

There have also been instances of Bedia sex workers eventually falling in love and marrying, as Pooja’s sister Poonam* did. A mother of two, she is currently in a Mumbai prison for running an unauthorised prostitution racket.

Pooja is at a shelter home in the city. The NGOs helping her are faced with a dilemma: Pooja was rescued only because she was a minor, not because she wanted to opt out. If they send her back home, as her family desires, she will go right back to sex work.

For Parihar, the hardest part is walking away knowing that nothing can be done to help the Bedia girls unless there is a willingness on their part to opt out. The task is made all the more harder when it’s the parents who are the pimps and society fails to give them a second chance.

Most of the Bedia children do not go to school. The ones who do, register themselves with Thakur as their last name, to avoid the discrimination that comes with their own caste name.

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Carefully set traps

Back in Dolly’s house, the girls in the opposite room continue to appear guarded. Nisha* and Palak* have come from Rajasthan to work as “parlour girls”. They live in the room “on rent”. They say their ages are 22 and 25, respectively, but they look barely 16 and 18. When asked what work they do, they indistinctly mutter the words “maalish” and “henna”. They earn ₹500-1,000 a day. Would they be interested in learning some other professional skill for a living? Nisha looks up, momentarily interested. Palak shakes her head. Do they miss their parents? Nisha’s eyes fill up and there is a long silence. “I will see them for Rakhi, I think” she finally says, softly. Dolly comes in and they immediately freeze.

“Sometimes all the signs are telling, but we need clinching evidence to get the police to back us up when we do a raid,” says Parihar. “Each month we get two or three calls from children who believe they have been violated in cases of either child marriage or trafficking. Two years ago we never heard about these cases. Today the kids reach out,” he adds.

“We have no dreams,” says Ram*, a 60-year-old Bedia in rural Shamshabad who is a father of four. The tiny two-bigha patch he owns is barely enough to feed his family. The family cannot even afford three square meals a day. Both his daughters are in Mumbai. One of them is married and visits him once a year with her husband and child. She sends him money regularly, although the family insists it is not earnings from sex work. The second daughter works in a dance bar. The last they saw of her was when she left the village 10 years ago, when she was still in Std VI. “Some years ago we spoke on the phone. I asked her to tell me her whereabouts. I told her I could come get her. But she refused and then stopped calling me,” says Leela*, Ram’s wife.

Parihar points out that many of the girls continue in this line of work of their own volition. “It’s a lifestyle they get used to. To wear expensive things and earn this much at such a young age. They think their job is only a small price to pay to lead the good life.”

At the district hospital, Sneha sips on a Frooti while mounting a scooter, sandwiched safely between Chauhan and a woman constable. She waves as they zip out of the gate and flashes a broad smile. In her eyes there is a glimmer of hope and the spunk to dream.

*As this article goes to print, a child welfare committee has allotted Sneha shelter in the government-run Rajkiya Balika Griha in Kanpur. As the case is still under investigation, she will live there and learn a vocational skill to make her employable when she turns 18 and a court approves her release.

(*Names have been changed to protect identities)

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Published on July 28, 2017
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