Daughters for Sale: India's Child Slavery Scourge
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.
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.
'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.
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."
- Part 1: India's Child Slavery Scourge
- Part 2: Confessions of a Child Trafficker
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