Sat, Jun 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

India struggling to end abuse of destitute women

By KATHERINE SAYRE  /  AP , NEW DELHI

Meena discovered she had been sold by her boss while riding in an auto-rickshaw headed to New Delhi's red-light district.

The 12-year-old was working as a domestic servant in Calcutta when the homeowner told her about a good-paying job at his sister's house in India's capital. But instead, she was sold to a brothel owner and forced into prostitution for little more than a place to sleep and the occasional meal.

Her ordeal lasted four years and Meena, now 21, says it left her "a very angry person."

Beneath the surface of India's rapid economic development lies a problem rooted in the persistent poverty of hundreds of millions of Indians. Rights activists say thousands of poor women and girls are forced into prostitution every year after being lured from villages to cities on false promises of jobs or marriages.

Much of the attention on human trafficking focuses on the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people — about 80 percent of them women or girls — who are trafficked across international borders every year, and, in many cases, forced to work as prostitutes or virtual slaves who perform menial tasks.

But those numbers don't include victims trafficked within their own countries — a problem that has long plagued India, a country large and diverse enough that traffickers can take victims from one place to another hundreds of miles away where a different language is spoken and there's little chance of the women finding their way back home.

"This is a challenge to India's contention that it is both democratic and modern," said Ruchira Gupta, founder of the anti-trafficking group Apne Aap. "In this day and age, when democracy is supposed to exist in India ... we have so many slaves."

The secrecy of the underground business makes it difficult to track, and the estimates for the numbers of India's victims each year vary widely.

The government estimates there are 3 million sex workers in India, at least 40 percent of them children. And thousands of them are believed to have been unwittingly lured into the work by traffickers, rights activists say.

Most of the girls come from India's poorer states. A family member or friend approaches the girl's parents about a well-paying job in the city or the chance for marriage with little or no need to pay a dowry.

In some cases, parents sell the girls directly. Prices range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Traffickers are rarely caught. The US State Department said in an annual report on human trafficking last year that India's law enforcement response to the problem was weak and prosecutions rare.

In Mumbai, which has the highest concentration of sex workers, only 13 traffickers were arrested in 2005, and none were convicted, according to the State Department. The situation was similar in other cities.

"One of the best ways to prevent trafficking is to increase convictions of trafficking — and this is not happening," Gupta said. "Women are being rounded up for soliciting in a public place, but there are very few arrests of men who are running the whole trade — the buyers, the pimps, transporters."

Deepa Jain Singh, secretary for India's Ministry of Women and Child Development, said the government is "trying to do more" about the problem of sex trafficking, but he declined to specify what steps were being taken.

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