The human cost of sex trafficking

In the sex trade, the demand for young girls is high due to a belief that sex with children holds less risk of HIV infection, and, in fact, can cure the disease


Dasra, along with organizations such as the UK’s Hummingbird Trust and Japan’s Kamonohashi Project, find that as many as 40% trafficked girls in the sex trade are adolescents and 15% are below the age of 15. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Dasra, along with organizations such as the UK’s Hummingbird Trust and Japan’s Kamonohashi Project, find that as many as 40% trafficked girls in the sex trade are adolescents and 15% are below the age of 15. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

As the customer entered her room, the 14-year-old’s mother pushed a cassette into the tape recorder and turned the volume up. Before leaving, she looked at the teenager and warned: “Do not shout or cry, even if it hurts.”

The room in one of Kolkata’s red light districts was small, no more than 10ft by 8ft, and had a bed with a lumpy mattress, a dust-laced air conditioner, a small shelf that held various deities and the tape recorder.

The man was in his late 20s, she guesses. “I was trembling and crying. He said, bachche (kid), I have paid Rs.50,000 to your mother to spend two hours with you.” She pushed, hit, shouted for help and then she gave in.

After the man left, her mother gave her medicine for the pain. Then she left her alone for a few months. But after she turned 15, it was time for business and there was no turning back.

The girl remembers growing up in a lower middle class family in Mumbai. She was just in preschool when a couple kidnapped her while she was playing out in the open. She remembers crying and begging to be returned home. Instead, the couple insisted she start calling them “mummy-papa”. There were other girls in the house, she says. “Everyone called them ‘mummy-papa’. So did I.” Running away was not an option—she had no money and no idea of where to run to.

The girl is telling her story from the safety of a shelter home where she now lives and it is hard to assimilate her as just a statistic in India’s rampant trafficking trade where 80% of sex workers, or 16 million women, are victims of sex trafficking, according to reports by Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation.

Arrests are disproportionate to the figures. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, just 3,030 cases were registered in 2008 under the different provisions of laws that come under the generic description of human trafficking. In 2013, that figure went up only marginally to 3,940.

In the sex trade, the demand for young girls is high because of a belief that sex with children holds less risk of HIV infection, and, in fact, can cure the disease. Dasra, along with organizations such as the UK’s Hummingbird Trust and Japan’s Kamonohashi Project, find that as many as 40% trafficked girls in the sex trade are adolescents and 15% are below the age of 15.

In the beginning, the teenager used to wear salwar-kameez, until mummy realized she wasn’t attracting enough men. From then on, it was slinky, short clothes for her. Every day, she says, she serviced five to six customers. Mummy kept the earnings but gave her Rs.200-300 a day.

Every evening in the brothel, the teenager would, along with a group of other girls, be forced to dance to 12 Bollywood songs. For the last two songs, the girls were supposed to strip. The teenager says it was embarrassing. She tried switching off the lights but the men would switch them on again. Touching was allowed; anything more was charged extra.

Life went on, until a police raid early last year—the shelter home asks that details remain sketchy since the trial is still on and the girl’s safety could be compromised.

A report on labour trafficking by Global March Against Child Labour, a global movement against child labour and trafficking, finds that 60% of rescued victims of commercial sexual exploitation said they had left home in search of employment. However, 40% were duped with false promises of marriage, love and a better life, or were kidnapped, like the 15-year-old.

Another 13-year-old from Bangladesh, rescued and presently in a shelter run by Kolkata-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Sanlaap, fell in love with a boy four years older than her. When, two years into their relationship, he told her he wanted to run off and marry her, she happily agreed. When they reached Bangalore, he sold her off for Rs.60,000.

Tucked into the loose-leaf binders at the shelter are such stories of betrayal, misery, hopelessness and violence. Even after they are rescued, victims, particularly of cross-border trafficking, are detained in shelters, sometimes for years.

“Cross-border trafficking is increasing because we lack a mechanism to prevent it,” says Tapoti Bhowmick, senior programme coordinator for Sanlaap. “We have no treaty between the two countries (India and Bangladesh) and so even if the trafficker is arrested in India, he goes back to his country. Instead, we detain the girls in shelters—sometimes for years.”

Modus operandi

Nearly 75% of Indian states have what government data define as a “high concentration” of women engaged in the sex trade. West Bengal tops this list with 660 reported cases of human trafficking in 2013, according to NCRB data.

West Bengal’s geographical location—it borders Sikkim, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam and shares international borders with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan—as well as its demographic and social constraints, coupled with having some of the poorest districts in India, makes it vulnerable to trafficking.

Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are major source states while Maharashtra, Delhi and Goa are the major destination states.

Factors that make a state a source state—places of origin of the victim—include low levels of education (71% of trafficked victims surveyed by the National Human Rights Commission were illiterate), poverty (nearly 50% had a family income of less than Rs.66 per day), and natural disasters or events known as trigger events.

The journey from source to destination usually involves moving the victim from her point of origin to a small town, and from there to her final destination.

Traffickers tend to be known to the victims’ families. They work by either kidnapping victims or luring them away by promising jobs, financial security and a better life in a big city. In many cases, elder sisters working in prostitution bring their younger siblings to be sold to brothels. In some cases, mothers struggling to feed their children send daughters to work in prostitution, sacrificing one child so that the others can eat.

Tragedy of abandonment

And sometimes, it is just the tragedy of abandonment that leads women to sex work. A 26-year-old from Bangladesh was abandoned by her husband a couple of years after their marriage. All that she knew was that he had moved to India. A few months later, her younger brother-in-law told her he would take her to India where she could find work. “I was almost like his mother. I trusted him,” she says. They took a train and reached Bangalore. There, her brother-in-law sold her for Rs.3 lakh. Within just two hours she had been resold, this time for Rs.6 lakh.

Victims are usually bought and sold several times over until they reach their destination. Sales take place at the buyers’ markets, where victims are usually stripped so that potential buyers can inspect their piece of flesh. Source traffickers then hand over the merchandise to local pimps who transport them to brothels in red light districts.

Brothels are governed by a strict chain of hierarchy. At the top is the malik (owner) who visits the flesh markets and deals directly with pimps. He also controls the revenue from the brothel, writes Siddharth Kara, author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, in a 2013 Dasra report on trafficking.

Next comes the gharwali, or manager of the brothel. Usually a victim of trafficking herself, writes Kara in the Dasra report, she is the first point of contact with clients and negotiates the prices and terms.

Then come the lodgers—sex workers who have scraped and saved enough money to move out of the brothel. They accept clients but as independent agents, in a rented room within the brothel.

Next comes the adhiya (literally, half); slaves really, who work as commercial sex workers attached to the brothel, sharing as much as half of what they earn with the malik.

Newly trafficked victims are at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They are told they must sleep with any client who buys them because they need to work off their debt. It is the malik who decides when that debt is paid off so that they can then be resold or become an adhiya or thrown out of the brothel altogether because they can no longer attract clients.

Business of sex trafficking

She was 22 when she left Murshidabad district of West Bengal and moved to Mumbai. Like many girls who are trafficked, she is illiterate. Now 30, she says she volunteered to join a brothel—her mother had died when she was a few months old, her father remarried and the step-mother was abusive, she says. When her father got tuberculosis and the stepmother became the family’s sole earning member, she knew it was time to move out. “I was a liability for her,” she says.

A friend had moved to Mumbai and told her about the business. It was easy money and she would earn more than she needed. “What seems wrong now was the only right thing for me then,” she says. “No one forced me. I got proper food and week-long breaks during my periods. I earned more than enough. I would just take a few customers as I only needed to earn enough for myself. I couldn’t think of any better option then,” she says.

She doesn’t regret what she did. She just thinks that had she been wiser, she wouldn’t have done what she did. She is now in a shelter home run by an NGO, where she spends most of her day cooking for other inmates.

India is a source, destination and transit country for girls being trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour, finds the US Department of State’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Maplecroft’s Trafficking Index, that measures the risk of exposure to trafficking based on prevalence as well as government complicity and inaction, puts India at seventh rank among 196 countries (where 1 is the lowest ranking country), categorized as “extreme risk” for trafficking. According to the United Nations, human trafficking is now the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world after weapons and narcotics.

Profit margins are what make sex trafficking such a thriving industry. According to Kara, the average purchase price per sex slave is $660 (roughly Rs.40,000). Taking an average price per sex act of $4.15 and an average number of daily sex acts at 11, average annual revenues per sex worker work out to $16,705. Even if you deduct an average annual maintenance cost of $4,763, the annual profit per sex slave still works out to $11,942—a profit margin of over 70%.

“The trafficker gains profit by selling at a price higher than his fixed and variable costs. Sex trafficking has high fixed costs, where average total cost is high at low quantities of trafficked individuals and decreases as operations increase in size, up to a certain point. Therefore, in situations when traffickers have been convicted, the trafficking route has been exposed, the houses where he would confine victims are seized, his accomplices have been booked, the economic gains are significantly reduced as the trafficker must factor in the cost of re-establishing his supply chain. Inverting these risk-reward economics of sex trafficking by increasing the cost of getting caught will begin to diminish the business of sexually exploiting vulnerable girls,” the Zero Traffick report states.

The annual revenue generated by just one brothel can range between Rs.1.5 crore to Rs.14.40 crore, says NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan. Annually, the sex trafficking industry in India generates roughly $9 billion. “The total Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) industry in the country generates revenues amounting to $30-343 billion per year,” states Global March Against Child Labour’s report Economics Behind Forced Labour Trafficking.

“It is a shocking revelation that $360 billion, or Rs.21 lakh crore, is generated by enslaving young girls in brothels and homes—that is equivalent to one-fifth of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product). This black money propels capital corruption,” says Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson Global March Against Child Labour. “The dream of development and child slavery cannot co exist.”

The 15-year-old lives in a shelter house now. While most other inmates hope to reunite with their families someday, she doesn’t even know the whereabouts of her parents. All she remembers is her father was a furniture assembly worker and she had one brother and four sisters.

While she is happy to be out of the business, she says she is scared her traffickers will track her down, and she will once again lose control over her life, her body and her dignity.

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