Daughters for Sale: India's Child Slavery Scourge

By Anne Backhaus

Anne Backhaus/ DER SPIEGEL

Millions of Indian children work as slaves in factories, brothels or in the homes of families. Out of poverty and desperation, parents sell their daughters, and human traffickers wait at train stations for runaways and scour for orphans in monsoon-ravaged villages.

On the day that Durga Mala was rescued, she lay crying on the stone floor, where she was attempting to cool her back. She was 11 years old and her skin was covered with blisters, from her shoulder blades to her buttocks. A few days earlier, her owners had poured hot oil over her because they thought she was working too slowly.

Suddenly Durga heard screams and huddled on the floor. Acting on a tip, police stormed the apartment in the heart of Bangalore. When they broke the door down, Durga crossed her arms in front of her chest and closed her eyes. She was only wearing a pair of panties -- that's all the clothing that her owners had allowed her to have. Durga says: "I was ashamed."

One of the men wrapped the small girl in a sheet and brought her to a hospital. Doctors treated her for a number of days. In addition to her burns, she was malnourished, infected wounds covered her fingers and her lips were scarred. "I dropped a glass once," says Durga, "and the woman got angry and pulled my fingernails out, one by one." Sometimes they poked her in the mouth with a needle. Durga was supposed to work, not speak.

It's estimated that millions of children in India live as modern-day slaves. They work in the fields, in factories, brothels and private households -- often without pay and usually with no realistic chance of escaping. The majority of them are sold or hired out by their own families.

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10  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Lost Children of Bangalore
According to an Indian government census from 2001, this country of over 1 billion people has 12.6 million minors between the ages of 5 and 14 who are working. The real number is undoubtedly significantly higher because many children are not officially registered at birth -- and the owners of course do their best to keep the existence of child slaves a secret. Aid organizations estimate that three-quarters of all domestic servants in India are children, and 90 percent of those are girls. Although both child labor and child trafficking are illegal, police rarely intervene -- and the courts seldom convict child traffickers and slaveholders.

'She Told Me I Would Be Well Treated'

Durga grew up in Calcutta. When she was seven, her father died, followed two years later by the death of her mother. Her grandmother took in Durga and her three elder sisters, but she couldn't manage to feed all four of them. One girl had to go, so she sold off the youngest. Via an intermediary, a family of total strangers paid 80 rupees for Durga -- roughly the equivalent of €1 ($1.33).

Durga traveled alone by train the nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) to Bangalore. She can't remember the journey, but she recalls her arrival. "The woman picked me up at the train station," she says. "I was afraid but she told me that I would be well treated."

From that day onwards, she cleaned the couple's apartment every day, cooked, did the laundry and the dishes. Durga was never paid, was never given time off and was never allowed to leave the building. The woman beat her often; the man hit her less often. Durga didn't try to defend herself. "Grandma told me I should always be nice," says Durga.

Today, Durga is 12 years old. Her weight has returned to normal, and she has large eyes and full lips. She wears her black hair tied in a knot behind her head. Her white teeth shine as she speaks, lighting up her soft face. Durga lives in Rainbow Home, a children's shelter run by the Catholic organization Bosco. Fifty-six girls live here in two empty rooms, with no chairs or tables. The children play, sleep and do their homework on the floor. They eat together in the hallway.

The home takes up one floor of a school building. The walls in the old building are painted blue and pink, and the caretakers teach the children to wash themselves on a regular basis, and not to immediately hit someone whenever there is a conflict. "It's hard work," says a nun named Anees. "For many children this is the first home that they have ever had," she points out, adding: "They all come from very disadvantaged families and have already experienced too much."

'I'd Like to Be a Lawyer'

Anees lives with the children at the home. Her day begins at 5 in the morning and ends at 11 at night. She sleeps with two other women in a small room.

The children are allowed to watch TV in the room next door. A Bollywood film is showing tonight. Durga sits with the others on the floor. Three friends snuggle up to her, and the smallest one sits on her lap. They are all staring spellbound at the TV. A man is singing and the girls watch enrapt.

Durga also wants to meet a man like that who would like to marry her and wouldn't beat her. She reflects for a moment and runs her fingers across her scarred lips. "And I'd like to be a lawyer," she says.

Nearly every child in the room has spent a large portion of her life working. The eldest is 16 years old. Even with an education, life will be hard for them. With over 8 million inhabitants, Bangalore is India's third-largest city, after Mumbai and Delhi. It's a boom town, glittering yet brutal -- a jungle that many still see as a ray of hope. Every day, over 80 trains arrive at Bangalore City Railway station from nearly every region of the country, jam-packed with abundant cheap labor and destitute individuals who are looking for a brighter future. "This is the trading center for children in southern India," says Father George.

The Salesian priest is nearly 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall, slightly heavyset and wears jeans. He strides through the bustling crowd of thousands, undeterred by the noise and the odors. Every day, George walks through the train station and heads straight to a hut in the middle of one of the railway platforms. This is where his staff members bring the children they have found wandering alone through the train station. "They are highly at risk," says George. "We try to help them before they fall into the wrong hands."

India 's Vulnerable Runaways

Two girls and a boy sit in a small waiting area. Aside from a half-full plastic bag, they have no luggage. They are sitting on a bench at the window and dangling their bare feet over the edge. In front of them is a narrow table, behind which there is just enough room for a female coworker and George, the head of the Bosco aid organization.

The cleric, who was born in southern India, speaks English and five of India's national tongues. The children relax somewhat as he starts to ask them questions in their native language, Kannada. George makes jokes and tells them short stories until they begin to respond. Bhavani, Salthya and Ramesh come from northern Karnataka, one of the poorest regions of southern India. George says: "They are runaways."

There are many runaways in India. The children flee from poverty in the countryside and the brutality of their families, and hope for a better life in the big city. Bangalore primarily attracts children from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which together make up an area much larger than all of Germany.

They are easy prey for the traffickers who await them at the train station. The men promise them a place to stay and a well-paid job, and when they hand the youngsters over to an employer, the traffickers earn a commission of up to 1,000 rupees, or nearly €12 per child.

'We Are Outnumbered'

In a bid to intercept the children in time, three Bosco staff members are posted at the train station every day, and two work at night. When a train arrives, they keep an eye out for children. There are 10 railway platforms, each nearly 1 kilometer long. If a number of trains roll into the station at the same time, the Bosco aid workers have no chance against the human traffickers. "We are outnumbered," says Father George: "Of the 50 to 60 children arriving each day, we're lucky if we can bring 15 to safety." The others are usually passed on to employers on the very same day.

If the children leave the train station, it's almost impossible to find them. "They are locked inside and have to work up to 12 hours a day," says George. They are very rarely actually paid for their work, he says, noting that many of them are held as Durga was, as slaves.

On the other side of the street is the bus station, which is the second largest transit center for children in Bangalore. Hundreds of buses squeeze by each other every hour. A bridge leads to the market district -- a vast maze of streets and alleyways that is filled with dealers, some of whom sell children.

A man who calls himself Krishna is crouching in the shade of a green building. The heat bores down on the city and the stench of trash hangs heavily in the alley. The man has a narrow face and a very slim body. He spits into a rivulet at his feet. Krishna is a child trafficker. He says: "I help the children."

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1. optional
danm 09/20/2013
This is an incredibly sad story. Tragic is the only thing that comes to mind. It's too bad a story like this gets no more attention than a woman complaining she cannot wear a head scarf in court. Maybe Der Spiegel needs to examine it's priorities and reconsider what it thinks is urgent and important. On the one hand we have millions of fragile little lives being abused and exploited and on the other hand we have a muslim woman in Germany who feels she is a victim because the courts will not make an exception and let her wear a head scarf in court. Hmmm.
2. corrupt, overpopulated, population still growing
b5200 09/22/2013
above just enumerate three reasons, why this country is like this. A few others are tradition (girls nothing worth, yet millions of men will never find a wife simply because of a lack of women), apathy and underdevelopment. As Salman Rushdy once described it so poignantly : the rich become richer and the poor become more. Let's see how and when this country collapses due to overpopulation that is harder and harder to manage as it becomes worse. India is a sort of 'laboratory experiement' what will happen if the world's population is growing much further.
3. optional
yoinky 09/23/2013
After reading this acticle I was very tempted to donate to the cause. However, as I like to know who exactly I'm giving money to, I did some research on the umbrella organization - the Salesians of Don Bosco. While I agree with their stated goals, they had some cases of (sexual) child abuse come to light in several countries. Instead of weeding out the bad parts of their organization, they instead defended them and moved them out of the way of prosecution. For this reason, I cannot justify donating.
4.
High Hat 09/23/2013
India should not be accepted as a nation until they are actively trying to stop the child abuse!
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