Rescued from Delhi last year after being sold into marriage and caged in a room for six months, Roopa Dhara* (15), along with other girls like her, prowls around her village in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district -- for child traffickers.
After keeping a watch on a group of people frequenting a friend’s place, they confront the parents who admit that the men had come with a marriage proposal for the girl. Roopa and her friends intimidate the girl’s below-poverty-line family that they would lose their NREGS job card, ration cards and may also be arrested. The parents yield and the marriage is called off.
- Agents of traffickers bring prospective grooms or visit vulnerable households as placement agents.
- They promise to pay for the marriage and even pay some cash to the parents of the underage girl.
- In case of domestic worker, they pay handsome salary in advance.
- The girl is taken away and she can’t be traced.
- The agent disappears and parents seldom lodge a complaint with police fearing harassment.
- The girls are eventually either sold in sex trade, or employed as domestic help in other states.
In Mouli village, 17-year-old Tanuja Khatun, a student of a higher secondary school, leads a group of 14 children in confronting a man who has been trying to lure a girl for a job in Delhi. They threaten to beat him up and hand him over to police, after which he is never seen again.
On National Girl Child’s Day, Tanuja and her friends were awarded by the state government.
“We are not scared of anyone,” says Tanuja, the youngest of six daughters of a daily wage labourer.
”After gathering information, when we confirmed that there was a possible attempt of trafficking, we confronted the trafficker. When he failed to answer my queries, I told him I will break his leg, tie him up with a thorn bush and throw red ants on him. He just ran away and was never seen in the village,” she says, proudly flaunting her trophy. She says they have successfully dealt with around 30 such cases in the village.
Assam and West Bengal are infamous for the high trafficking cases of both adults and children. According to 2015 NCRB data, of the 1,255 trafficking cases in West Bengal, 1,119 (89%) involved children. The state is also a source, transit and destination.
Traffickers or their agents usually visit a poor family in a village, show them pictures of children working and promise them hefty monthly earnings (Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000). They would pay a month’s salary in advance and traffic the girl to different parts of the country, including Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even Jammu and Kashmir.
In the case of marriage, the agent brings prospective grooms who pay for the marriage ceremony and some extra cash to the parents of the underage girl. The girl is taken away and in most cases, grooms produce fake voter ID cards and wrong addresses.
After a couple of months, the payment stops, the agent disappears and the girl goes missing.
Though girls are the main target, trafficked for sex work or as domestic helps, boys land up in sweet shops and brick kilns.
“Children have been victims. They have seen their friends trafficked. Therefore, they have been the most successful in combating the menace,” says Chittapriyo Sadhu, general manager, state programme, West Bengal and Assam of NGO Save the Children.
It is one of the NGOs working closely with the West Bengal government and others in preventing trafficking in parts of Bengal.
Trained by NGOs with government support, the children’s groups, having around 15 members in each, aged between 14 and 18 years, keep vigil in the villages, spot and challenge traffickers, stop child marriages and help in rescue.
They have also built up their own network of sources in the villages and not only coordinate with local panchayat members, but some of them are representatives of child protection committees, 160 of which are integrated to them.
The groups are also linked with Integrated Child Protection Scheme being implemented by the West Bengal government at the grass roots level. Thirty-five villages in the area have been declared free of child domestic worker (engaged through trafficking).
Started in 2004 in Sandeshkhali-Canning area, such children’s groups are being replicated throughout the state especially in South 24 Parganas, Malda, Alipurduar and Kolkata districts.
Mostly, rescued children and school dropouts are brought to special centres and given training before integrating them with schools and taking them in the children’s groups.
“We are choosing some of them as ‘child champions’ and sending them to other affected villages to spread the model,” says Sadhu.
“Before the children’s groups were formed in these areas, most were trafficked to different parts of the country. Many children went missing. But now the situation has changed. Now, traffickers have shifted base, as have a large number of placement agencies,” says Hriday Ghosh, head of Dhagogia Social Welfare Society, partner NGO of Save The Children in Sandeshkhali.
“But in villages where there are no such groups the situation is pathetic,” he says.
“Apart from making rounds of the villages, visiting homes for awareness, we hold regular meetings,” says Jasmina Khatun, (15), a student of Sarberia high school and member of the children group in Choto Ajgara village.
Village elders, parents, panchayat members and even police listen to us and more importantly act, she says, recalling that they were initially reluctant to listen to them. “If our efforts fail, we call the child helpline, child welfare committee members and police.”
Camelia Khatun (15), student of Agarhati Gourhari Vidyalaya and one of the most vociferous members of children’s group in Tagramari village, says they also help police and NGOs by providing leads, phone numbers and location of children already trafficked from the villages. “We also help rescue children from brick kilns locally.”
The children have also written poems and songs against trafficking. The groups also create awareness on polio vaccination, literacy and other social causes in their respective villages.
“So far we have been able to help rescue 37 children from brick kilns in the last few years. As a member of the village child protection committee, where other members are elders, I still prove my point and get the work done,” says Subrata Naskar (17), member of the children group at Taltolla-Jhaipara village.
(* Name changed to protect privacy)