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By Rashme Sehgal

A recent study of 412 brothel owners from 12 states revealed that there were six girl-children on average per brothel. One-hundred-and-sixty traffickers interviewed admitted that young girls were their main target. In 35% of cases, it is families that sell their women into the flesh trade for as little as Rs 1,000-Rs 5,000

Thousands of women and children are being trafficked every year. Trafficking of women and children has emerged as the third largest industry, after the arms and drugs trade. Researchers estimate that Kamathipura in Mumbai alone generates over $ 400 million annually, with 100,000 prostitutes servicing six customers a day, at Rs 100 a customer. Transactions in prostitution are reported to gross Rs 40,000 crore per annum, with revenues being shared between procurers, pimps, brothel keepers and the police.

A two-year study by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), published in 2005, tracked down the “merchants of the flesh trade”, including brothel owners and traffickers.

Assured of anonymity, 160 traffickers spoke at length about their modus operandi. A fifth of them were from Andhra Pradesh while the rest came from Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Most of those interviewed were in their mid-20s and early-30s, though researchers came across two traffickers from Maharashtra and Goa who were just 18 years old.

At the top of the hierarchy are the ‘master’ traffickers whose identity remains largely unknown. They are assisted by field-level purchasers, transporters, master operators, pimps and procurers and the crime syndicate that involves brothel owners and brothel managers where most of the trafficked women and children end up being forced to live.

Young girls continue to be the main target of the traffickers, especially since clients are eager to have sex with virgins. The majority admitted to trafficking children in order to sexually exploit them.

Sixteen-year-old Chaya, rescued recently from a G B Road brothel in New Delhi, was picked up by a trafficker from her village when she was very young. She was forced to entertain customers for over 12 hours a day; the first customer came in at 10 am and the last customer would come into her cabin after midnight. “By the time I finished with my last customer I did not have the strength even to breathe. But the ‘madam’ would keep pushing in more and more customers so that she could make more profit out of me,” said Chaya. She was rescued by the police and has been living in a rescue home in Nirmal Chhaya for the last four years.

Ten-year-old Priti from Anori village in Karnataka was sold by her father and stepmother for Rs 12,000. A trafficker took her by train to Mumbai where she was forced into the sex trade. “I had not even begun menstruating when I was compelled to entertain around 60 customers every day,” she says. “Each customer paid Rs 400 to the brothel owner. When I attained puberty, at the age of 13, I was expected to entertain 30 customers. But my rate went down to Rs 300 per customer which, again, was taken by the brothel owner. She even took the tips.” Priti revealed this to the police when she was rescued seven years after being inducted into the sex trade.  

In a majority of cases, the traffickers admit they first develop a relationship with members of the family. The study highlighted how, in 35% of the cases, it was the family members and relatives, including parents and husbands, who helped facilitate the deal for a financial consideration.

While the majority of women/girls were sold out of poverty, in approximately 10% of cases, the traffickers claimed, women were sold out of greed. There are some upper class women too; many are lured under the guise of being helped to gain a foothold in the glamorous Hindi film industry.

Trafficking, they admitted, was a low-investment, high-profit business. Girls were being bought for as little as Rs 1,000 per girl, though the majority said they spent around Rs 5,000 to purchase a girl. Only in exceptional circumstances did they fork out as much as Rs 10,000-Rs 20,000 for a girl, with payments being made on a commission basis.

The study cited the example of ‘AM’, a well-known trafficker from Muzaffarpur, who is presently supplying women in Siliguri, Darjeeling, Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnea and Ataria. On average, ‘AM’ trafficks 40 women and children every month, earning around Rs 10 lakh just from the sale of these women. During the festival season, the number of women can go up to 60. ‘AM’ is reported to own several houses in Siliguri and other cities.

On average, each trafficker interviewed had bought/sold over 42 women and children. They also said they had sexually assaulted their victims. Forty-two per cent of them admitted to having abused between three to 10 of their victims, while 37% said they had abused more than 10 victims. Only then did they hand the women over to a brothel for them to start soliciting clients.

Many traffickers admit to exploiting women and children for pornographic reasons too. Children from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are being trafficked out of the country to the Middle East, UK, Korea and the Philippines for these purposes.

The study also interviewed 412 brothel owners from 12 states. Each of them had at least seven to 10 girls/women working for them.

Despite the government’s assurances about ensuring that children are not part of the sex trade, the brothel owners candidly admitted that they had over 245 girls below the age of 16, and another 615 girls between 16-18 years of age. “This works out to a minimum of six children per brothel. Bihar had the largest number of girls, followed by Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh,” says Dr George Mathew, Director of ISS.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007