Daughters for Sale India's Child Slavery Scourge

Anne Backhaus/ DER SPIEGEL

Part 2: Confessions of a Child Trafficker

Krishna lights a cigarette and explains that the work has become difficult because there are too many competitors. Most of them don't do their job as well as he does, he claims. "I know exactly which child matches which employer," Krishna says with pride. "They come here and want work and I find them the right employment," he boasts.

A number of passersby nod to Krishna. He returns the gesture with a barely noticeable movement of the head. "I'm a good man," says Krishna, adding: "People like me." He has been in the business for five years and he immediately notices if a child is strong enough, Krishna claims. The boys are brought to hotels and repair shops, he says, and most of the girls go to tailors or to a colleague who caters to private buyers. Krishna wears a gold watch.

People like Krishna see themselves as placement agencies. They are child traffickers, says George: "They don't care about the children -- they're only concerned about their own income." The priest is riding in one of the three vehicles that Bosco uses every day. His people use the minibuses to bring the children from the train station to the aid organization's headquarters. "Most of them are afraid and don't want to be rescued at first," says George. "Without the minibuses, they would run away from us."

George normally travels around the city on a scooter. But now he has to quickly return to the office, primarily to make some phone calls. His mobile phone is almost constantly ringing.

George remains friendly with every caller. "Everything's fine," that's how he ends each phone call, regardless of whether there's a power failure in one of the homes or not enough money to pay the bills. The 38-year-old priest manages over 100 staff members -- with love, as he says. After all, he can't pay much money.

The priest's office is located in the same building as the reception center. The children here are washed and given a medical checkup -- and they receive shoes and clothing. "As soon as they feel at home, we start with the counseling," explains George. His workplace is on the second floor, and his bedroom is on the third floor. Next to George's computer lies a porcelain figurine of the baby Jesus.

Most of the runaways that Bosco picks up are eventually collected by their relatives and brought back home. The rest are given a place to live in one of the organization's seven homes, and granted a place in the school. Nine out of 10 children are boys; girls have fewer opportunities to run away. "They are sold off at an early age," says George, usually by their own families.

India Sells its Daughters

India is a rising economic power. However, Indian society has not entirely managed to keep pace and, in some ways, is lagging behind by decades, if not centuries. In this society, girls don't have much status -- and they cost their parents money. When a young woman marries, the marriage has to be financed, and she leaves the parental home to live with her husband's family. Boys, however, remain with their families. When they become men, they are expected to look after the older generations and support them financially. Hence, it makes economic sense to sell off girls at a young age.

Aid organizations estimate that 20 to 65 million Indians have already passed through the hands of human traffickers at one point in their lives. Ninety percent of them remain within India's national borders, and the majority are female and under the age of 18.

"Human trafficking works because the victims are afraid and cannot communicate," says Palavi, who works as a social worker. "India is so large that is not necessary to sell women and girls abroad," she says. "If they are Bengalis from the northeastern part of the country, they don't understand a word when they arrive in Mumbai."

Palavi has been working for a number of years in Mumbai's red light district of Khetwadi and, for security reasons, she requested that her last name not be divulged. Working for the aid organization Prerana, she provides counseling to girls who can take shelter in three emergency centers that are open 24 hours a day. "In India young women are bought and sold like slaves. Many of them have children who live in constant danger of also being sold or sexually abused," says Palavi. "They grow up under the beds where their mothers were robbed of their dignity."

Prerana runs a number of homes where the children of prostitutes live. Palavi sighs. Now that the monsoon rains have reached Mumbai, the streets are filling with water and the notebooks in her office are starting to curl from the moisture.

According to one estimate by a state investigative agency, 3 million prostitutes work in Indian brothels -- and some 40 percent of them are minors. As soon as they reach the age of 10, girls are sold to men who pose as marriage matchmakers or promise jobs in the city. When the monsoon washes away rural communities, traffickers drive to what remains of the villages and collect the orphans or purchase the children of farmers who have lost everything and have nothing to give their families to eat anyway.

"When the girls reach Mumbai, they are first locked away in dungeons for a number of weeks," explains Palavi. "They are given hardly anything to eat and raped every day. This breaks their will so that they don't make any trouble in the brothels."

Sold to a Brothel

Sanjana was 11 when her father sold her to a trafficker who claimed that the girl could work in a silk factory near Calcutta. In reality, though, the trafficker sold her to the owner of a brothel. "I just wanted to die," she says.

Sanjana had to work to pay back her purchasing price and pay for accommodation -- at least that's what the brothel owner told her. And she supposedly never managed to pay back her debts. "It was at least 10 men a day, 30 on holidays," she says. Sanjana was locked in a room and her owner negotiated the prices.

"I was always afraid," says Sanjana, adding: "I wasn't allowed to turn down any man." There were practically never any condoms. Palavi says: "Many of the prostitutes in Mumbai have AIDS."

Sanjana was lucky. She escaped after three years of forced prostitution when the police stormed the brothel where she lived. The Bengali couldn't return to her home village, though. "My family hadn't heard from me for a number of years and I wasn't an honorable woman anymore," explains Sanjana: "They never would have taken me in again."

Sanjana is now 22 and earns her living as a seamstress in Mumbai. The brothel owner was never sentenced, nor were the child traffickers.

'I'm Happy Now'

By contrast, Durga Mala has to appear in court roughly once every two months. The trial against her former owner, who is being sued by an aid organization, has been dragging on for the past three years. Durga doesn't like the court. She would actually rather not think back to the time when she was held in that horrible household. "I'm living now," says Durga.

She never heard from her grandmother again. Her grandfather once called from a phone booth and told her that her oldest sister was now married and another was working as a housekeeper. Durga reflects for a long time, but she can no longer remember the names of her sisters. She says: "I'm happy now."

"There's no point in worrying about things," believes George. The big priest is leaning forward on a plastic chair in front of the children's home, and his mobile phone looks tiny in the palm of his hand. The Rainbow Home is celebrating its second-year anniversary. Inside the building, the nuns are brewing tea and the children have been told to wash their hands. On the second floor, girls are starting to sing. George smiles and heads upstairs.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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danm 09/20/2013
1. optional
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.
b5200 09/22/2013
2. corrupt, overpopulated, population still growing
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.
yoinky 09/23/2013
3. optional
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.
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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