Tarannum (name changed) has many cut marks on her wrist, scars that constantly remind her of the several years she spent in a brothel where she was sexually exploited countless times. “Three years of hell,” she recalls.
Daughter of a fisherman from a cyclone prone area of the Sundarbans, 13-year-old Tarannum was trafficked by a local shopkeeper in 2012. He tricked her into believing that he would get her a job as a domestic worker with a good salary. Once in Delhi, he sold her to a woman at a brothel. After three years, she was rescued by a local NGO with the help of police. But even after she returned home, the trauma of the past haunted her and she turned suicidal, trying to slit her wrist multiple times.

Slowly recuperating now, Tarannum hopes no one ever goes through what she did. Another trafficking survivor Reema (name changed) does not remember her parents. She only faintly recalls her father. At a very young age, a brothel owner had trafficked her and forced her into prostitution.

She was finally rescued from a brothel in Sonagachi, West Bengal, in 2013 at the age of 21 after enduring many years of sexual abuse in different cities across the country. Both Tarannum and Reema are among thousands of children and women who get trafficked in different parts of the country every year.

This year with the outbreak of the coronavirus, activists and researchers are worried that an exponential increase in human trafficking cases will take place in the coming times. Roop Sen, anti-trafficking researcher and gender rights activist, said it’s “undeniable” that those on the margins of society are vulnerable to trafficking.

“The reasons are manifold like debt trap, closing down of factories, restaurants and retail shops, probable rise in demand of young girls and women in red light areas,” he said. According to Sen, among the steps the government can take to combat human trafficking are cash transfer support to more vulnerable families and communities, cash transfer to children and adolescents attending schools and creating safe migration services.

He further suggested that anti-human trafficking units can gather intelligence on trafficking in hotspots. Sambhu Nanda, an activist from West Bengal who coordinates an NGO-network called Partners for Anti-Trafficking claimed that multiple reports of missing and trafficking of girls have been received in the past two months.

“Even when parents reported the cases to local police stations, the officers pleaded helpless since all their energies were focussed on COVID prevention,” he said. Pompi Banerjee, a member of NGO Sanjog, said the vulnerabilities due to the lockdown and the pandemic are essentially the susceptibilities that have existed for a long time, but at a scale where they were not highly visible issues.

“The pandemic, the lockdown, and in parts of our country devastating natural calamities (floods and cyclones) are now accentuating these vulnerabilities and have brought them out in the open, visible enough that they can no longer be ignored by the law enforcement and politicians,” Banerjee said. N Rammohan, anti-trafficking activist from Andhra Pradesh who runs NGO HELP, claimed that many sex workers, who are the earning members for their families especially for their children, have been driven to take loans under exorbitant interests during the lockdown period.

“The local loan sharks who are not registered under the Money Lenders’ Act, especially operating in red light areas, are poaching women with adolescent girls and encouraging them to take loans under high interest. When they would be unable to repay their loans, the sex workers would be forced to prostitute their daughters,” he said. Priti Mahara, Director, Policy Research and Advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You said separated and orphaned children are also particularly vulnerable to trafficking and other exploitation like forced begging and child labour.

“The state needs to be prepared to provide enough child care homes/facilities, improve the quality and safety standard of childcare homes, child sponsorship and foster care. There are increased chances of many children getting separated from families, becoming orphans or falling out of the safety net,” she said. She further said the government and civil society need to activate local self-governance units like panchayats to keep the records of families and children entering and exiting villages and slums to help keep track of children and expedite follow ups.

Prabhat Kumar, deputy director of child protection for NGO Save the Children said whenever there is a disaster, there is rise in trafficking cases due to the crisis that follows as it becomes easier to recruit people and send them for trafficking, forced labour or sexual exploitation. The economic crisis, lack of enforcement mechanisms and migrant crisis might lead to rise in trafficking in the coming times, he warned.

The original article was published in DevDiscourse.

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