For close to a month, a two-year-old baby girl called Falak has gripped the imagination of a nation. Brought in with a fractured skull, bite marks and bruises, she has undergone four surgeries, and is on and off the ventilator. Who knows how her story will end? Will she have permanent brain damage? Will she end up institutionalised? Will she live? For now, it’s just a struggle to make it through another day.
Falak was brought to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences by a 14-year-old child entrusted with the baby’s care. Sold into a brothel where she got into a ‘relationship’ with a married man, that girl is now in a juvenile home. There’s a third woman in this tale: Falak’s biological mother, 22-year-old Munni, who was sold by her first husband through an agent to a man in Rajasthan.
It’s hard to say which of the three, the child, the carer or the mother, have suffered the most but there is one common strand: the home ministry says this is a case of human trafficking, a euphemism for what columnist Nicholas Kristoff more bluntly calls the ‘21st century slave trade’.
Statistics on trafficking vary. Over 1.17 lakh children were reported missing between 2008 and 2010, according to a study by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA). Of these, 41,546 remain untraced. Another report, Action Research Trafficking in Women and Children in India, 2002-2003, indicates that many of the missing are not really missing but are instead trafficked.
We also know this. Two hundred women enter prostitution daily of which 20% are below 15. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that there are between 70,000 and one million women and children in sex work in India. Research also indicates that in the last decade, the average age of trafficked girls has fallen from 14-16 years to 10-14 years. Many end up in the sex trade, some are used for forced labour, others are recruited for begging and a few end up in adoption rackets. Delhi has 2,300 ‘placement agencies’, only 300 of which are registered, says BBA’s Rakesh Senger. A majority place trafficked children as domestic workers in urban homes. More recently, the falling sex ratio, particularly in states like Haryana and Rajasthan, is resulting in trafficked women being sold in forced marriages.
If cities are the markets where trafficked children are sold then this is a problem that exists under our noses. We see these children begging and performing at streetlights, we find them in the homes of our neighbours washing dirty dishes, we come across them in dhabas. And we remain blind and silent.
It’s when a baby Falak emerges that the curtain falls back, exposing the stark reality of human lives. It’s when evidence of abuse is so obvious that it can no longer remain hidden that our conscience temporarily awakens. But Falak is just the embodiment of a larger, widespread malaise.
Can anything be done? Yes, plenty. The Immoral Trafficking of People Act, urgently in need of amendment, does not even define trafficking. There is no standard operating procedure on how to respond to a missing child case. Most states do not define who is a missing child. There is no centralised data base on missing children. There is little gender sensitisation at the enforcement and administrative level. Police stations lack manpower and funds to appoint dedicated personnel.
Finally, there is no comprehensive rehabilitation plan for rescued victims: families are often loathe to take them back, particularly if they have been in the sex trade and institutionalisation sometimes provides a remedy worse than the disease — Delhi’s Arya Orphanage where an 11-year-old girl died after repeated sexual abuse tells its own story.
But the biggest stumbling block is a lack of will on the part of both citizens and legislators. A problem that is so obvious, so widespread and so perverse should be confronted with the same seriousness as, say, terrorism or Naxalism. That we choose to ignore it, says a lot about our own priorities.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer)
The views expressed by the author are personal