One in every six missing children is a girl from Bengal – NCRB

West Bengal reported the second-highest number of children being trafficked (8205) in 2018 according to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data released in 2019, next only to Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The common causes of trafficking as reported are forced marriages, children in labour (including domestic work) and sexual exploitation, among others. Amongst the top 10 districts in the state, Kolkata and South 24 Parganas shoulder 60% of the case burden.

The data available is based on police records – the number of First Information Reports (FIR)registered. However the assumption that all known instances of trafficking result in an FIR remain flawed.

West Bengal has been adversely affected by the economic impact of the nationwide lockdown in the aftermath of COVID-19 and further complicated by Super Cyclone Amphan (impacting approximately 40 million children in South Bengal itself according to UNICEF) and is facing a rising trend of reverse migration, loss of income and livelihood, and a potential rise in numbers of children being trafficked.

The problem of child trafficking is deep-rooted and manifold. With the weakening of family finances, negative coping mechanisms like engaging children, especially girls, in labour, often exploitative, continue to rise. An increased incidence of child trafficking has been reported in West Bengal during the lock down period and in the aftermath of Amphan. The figures from NCRB are just the tip of an iceberg, showing how grave the situation can be. The key stakeholders like the police are busy responding to the pandemic and schools are closed, with children consequently out of school and exposed to offers of engagement in exploitative work options. Child marriage is seen as an option to relieve the families of their financial burden.

The NFHS 4 (2015-16) data reflects that, more than 41% of women in the age-group of 20-24 years were married before the age of 18 years. Further segregation of data reveals that the number of child marriages in the rural areas is much higher than in the urban areas. The reasons of child marriages in West Bengal can primarily be attributed to lack of access to higher education for girls, poverty, social and gender stereotypes and weak enforcement of the law.

Dropping out of the education system, forcibly married off, engagement in labour, are some of the ways children are affected in a humanitarian crisis, and trafficking is both a cause and effect of such child rights violations.

The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 was passed. in the Lok Sabha, but lapsed as it could not be introduced in the Rajya Sabha before the 2019 union elections. The Bill provided for time-bound trials, repatriation of survivors and prosecution of those promoting/facilitating trafficking. It also provided for the confidentiality of survivors, witnesses and complainants. Reintroducing this bill to establish a robust legal, economic and social environment against human trafficking will help in adopting a survivor-centric approach.

Any relaxation or suspension of Labour Laws would however aggravate the situation by reducing the time spent by primary caregivers with the children in the family thereby exposing them further to dubious placement agents, especially in the rural and peri-urban areas.

Watchdog mechanisms based in the community and out of it, involving civil society organisations, community based organisations (like Village level Child Protection Committees), law enforcement agencies and monitoring bodies (State Commission for Protection of Child Rights) need to keep strict vigil to prevent and address any child rights violations, and ensure timely reporting with immediate effect.

As iterated above, it is time for threefold urgent action to protect children from getting into harmful work and prevention of child trafficking in the context of relaxed labour laws and the impact of the pandemic on the state’s economic health.

Reintroduction of the survivor-friendly anti-human trafficking Bill, in the parliament, with a view to fast-track enactment and subsequent enforcement processes is the need of the hour. There is also urgency for immediate enforcement of watchdog mechanisms within the village or peri-urban localities, to ensure prevention, of children being engaged in exploitative modes of income generation. This could be initiated through village-based monitoring of children at risk and utilizing existing schemes and models (including award-winning schemes like Kanyashree) to raise awareness and prevent the entry of traffickers into the community.

Authors:

Mr. Chittapriyo Sadhu, Deputy Director, Programme Management (East)

Debadrita Sengupta, Manager Advocacy (East)

Soumi Guha Halder, Manager- Campaigns and Communication (East)

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