Human trafficking was a big problem in the Northeast. COVID-19 has made it much worse
Humanity is an eight-letter word. Human, on the other hand, is five. When contextualised based on contemporary society and the happenings, this difference of three letters explains why every human does not characterise humanitarian values.
Amidst this never-ending debate of greatness between humans and humanity, humans, time and again, have weakened their stand by committing heinous crimes against different organisms, including fellow humans.
The NEDAN foundation from Kokrajhar, Assam has rescued 6,552 children trafficked from Northeast region to other states in India and South Asian countries. Mini* is one of the survivors.
Mini is a 17-year-old girl from Kokrajhar District. On July 31, 2020, Mini’s fate took an unprecedented turn. She was sold. A man named Jibon Ali sold her to Helahi Sheikh of West Siliguri. She had fallen into the well-planned trap by the trafficker who seduced her to his false love, hiding his religious identity. The perpetrator tried to bring this brave little girl into prostitution. Unable to find their missing daughter, her parent filed a case in the Serfanguri Police Station and with the help of a local activist from Siliguri, finally, Mini was found in Khalpara Red Light area. The traffickers were arrested and a case was registered.
Mini is one among thousands of people from vulnerable sections in Northeast who are prone to human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking in Northeast India disproportionately represent people from traditionally disadvantaged gender, caste, and religious groups.
Lily* is a 17 year-old-girl from Kolasib, Mizoram, and is working as housekeeping staff. She was recruited by an agent and willingly taken to Delhi for domestic work. But once they reached Delhi, she was physically and sexually abused, confined to the house, and treated as a bonded labour. She finally escaped and went back home.
Though she did not consider herself to be trafficked as she went willingly, the treatment meted out to her fulfils all criteria of 'trafficking' as per Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), where consent of the victim is immaterial.
With the pandemic COVID-19 engulfing the globe, the traditionally-vulnerable sections of people have been left exposed. Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network, which has dealt with over 74,000 cases of human trafficking, spoke with EastMojo in this regard.
She said, "We have seen an increase in the number of cases during the lockdown. There has been an increase in online exploitation. Girls are being duked, and young children are being exploited over social media platforms and with increasing demands of pornographic sites in our country. We have also seen cases in Tea gardens of Assam, where families to meet their necessities, have tried to sell their children."
Leeza is the thematic manager, migration and anti-human trafficking, Caritas India. While speaking on Human Trafficking during COVID-19, she tried to give examples with which their organisations have dealt. She said that at one point during the lockdown, just in 11 days, 92,000 cases of child abuse in the family or the community were reported to the Government helpline.
One such case was that of a father who lost his job and planned to sell his four-month-old child to a wealthy couple. The child's mother was not aware of the same. And when the wealthy couple came to take the baby, the women managed to save her child with the intervention of the neighbours. The man was a daily wage construction worker, and because he had no work and couldn't feed his family, he tried to sell the baby in desperation.
Thus, many a time, human trafficking arises out of sheer poverty, joblessness, and economic downfall, three factors that are common to all the eight Northeastern States; also, more because of the pandemic. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, by May, more than 122 million people lost their jobs in India. Almost 75% of them were small traders and daily-wage workers, and when families are economically not very stable, the vulnerability of children increases.
A World Bank Report on 'Vulnerability to Human Trafficking' that was launched after conducting extensive research in Assam and Mizoram mentioned the profiles of the victims of trafficking. The women who were trafficked belonged to either of the two categories of vulnerable women- 'returned' women, i.e. those who had left their places of origin but had now returned, and 'migrant' women, i.e. those who had left their place of origin and had migrated to the locations where the study was conducted.
About 65% of the victimised women from Assam and Mizoram were from the age group 20-24. Also, factors like their caste, education level, and employment patterns represented that the ones on the weaker side of these parameters were dominated, trafficked, or exploited.
It is seen that most of the victims were trafficked for domestic labour. The work characterised elements of slavery-like torture, lack of freedom, long working hours, physical and sexual abuse, and low to no wages. A few of them were even survivors of sex trafficking.
Dr Digambar Narzary, a child-rights activist and the Chairperson OF NEDAN Foundation told EastMojo about the Foundation's work in this regard. He said, “The Nation is locked down, but human trafficking is not”. In Kokrajhar District itself, they have intervened in 12 cases of girls trafficking, eight minor rape victims and 21 child marriages.
Priyakshi is a student of Social Work and has provided counselling services to prostitutes of Sonargachi, Kolkata regarding their safety. She discovered that almost everyone amongst them was trafficked at some point of time in history.
While speaking to EastMojo concerning the pandemic, she said, "Most of the children are in homes these days. One might think that they are safe. But the form of exploitation has transformed from offline to online. The perpetrators can easily talk to them over social media and bring them into confidence. They can be groomed in a way, the perpetrator desires and once they are taken into good faith, it becomes easy for the perpetrators to find a good time or a place to kidnap them."
The pandemic situation or the normal, for several adult women, trafficked either as adults or young adolescents, the cycle of trafficking began with a known person. For instance, a 23-year-old respondent living in an NGO shelter home in Assam was trafficked by her cousin who drugged her, transported her via train, and sold her to a brothel in Siliguri.
For some others, it arises because of family circumstances. A woman who lost her mother when she was a child, was brought up by her father, a rickshaw-puller, then kidnapped by her male cousin, she was forced into prostitution by him and his friends.
"It is not just women but any section that has been dominated or is weak enough to get dominated becomes the victim of human trafficking. One does not need any reasons to commit these heinous crimes. If anything, that exists concerning the word 'reasons', it is simply the absence of any reasoning at all", said Purbita Choudhury, a social worker and a former student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.
She said that poverty, gender-based discrimination, domestic violence, substance abuse, and natural disasters gave birth to such crimes. And COVID-19 brought all of these together. There was increased poverty, higher instances of domestic violence, greater substance abuse and Assam, right from the end of April till June was shivering with floods making the people more vulnerable.
Northeast India is not just the source of human trafficking but is also a demand and transportation hub. It is a destination for displaced people from other states and even intrastate displacements.
On the inauguration of campaign 'Suraksha' by the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) in collaboration with UNICEF Assam, Surendra Kumar, IPS, Inspector General of Police, CID, Assam said they strengthened the Special Juvenile Police Units (SJPU) and Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) across all the districts of Assam. Assam police also set up Sishu Mitra Program in collaboration with UTSAH Child Rights Organisation and UNICEF to provide onsite training and guidance to officers dealing with cases that involve violence against children.
Dr Sunita Changkakati, the chairperson of ASCPCR said she has been taking the issue of child rights in the state with grave attention. While speaking on the impact of COVID-19 on children and child trafficking, she says that in the initial phase, they had anticipated that crimes against children will lessen during such a pandemic situation. But, surprisingly in the state, these cases saw a rise. Since the lockdown till June 2020, there have been as many as 133 cases of child sexual abuse, 47 cases of solemnization of child marriage. There were two cases of selling the children and two concerning abduction.
Anjali* is a 12-year-old girl belonging to a poor family from Kokrajhar district. A few years ago, her father died, making her mother the only bread earner of the family. Because of poor economic condition, her mother sent three out of six children to live with different relatives. Anjali was one of them. She came home during Durga Puja to stay with her mother. But while returning to her home from Vijaya Dashami Celebration at a nearby place on October 26, she was abducted and gang-raped by five men from her locality.
NEDAN Foundation, along with Childline Kokrajhar, helped Anjali and her family in the legal process of getting justice. She is provided permanent shelter in Destination Girls’ Home, Anthaigwlao and will be re-enrolled in school. She is also receiving psychological counselling from the NGO.
Lilymaxima Ekka, a social worker from Karbi Anglong is working with North East Diocesan Social Service Society. 25-years-old Ekka is concerned with checking the trafficking of tribal girls from the region.
While talking to EastMojo, Ekka said, "It requires a holistic approach combined with multidisciplinary efforts. We have to educate remote villages and conduct advocacy campaigns. We have to rescue the victims and assist them by providing shelter as well as healthcare and required psychological support. It is important to prosecute traffickers and give legal and vocational support to the victims. We should also make use of media to spread awareness about the evil effects of trafficking. Apart from the Government and NGOs, the youth should come forwards to help the poor and make people treat their domestic assistants properly."
Amidst many solutions, the one that the Northeastern States have adopted is the Impulse model by Hasina Kharbhih. Her works in this regard have been focusing on prevention to rehabilitation. She has engineered-
Extensive safe livelihood opportunities for women and children
A volunteer-based outreach program to help children in sourcing areas, discuss their needs and know their rights.
Periodic Public Information Campaigns.
She has over several government organisations, numerous citizen groups, key media, and law enforcement bodies collaborating through the 'Impulse Model' systems. Everybody contributes the necessary data and sees the larger picture. They connect with partners whenever needed. In case a girl is disappeared, the system will know all the currently active channels and have eyes everywhere. If she is later found in a Kolkata brothel, her system will allow its Kolkata members to connect with whoever had worked on a victim's case before or should work now.
(Names of the victims have been changed)