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The nuances of human trafficking

By Rina Mukherji

Understanding Trafficking stresses the difference between women who migrate and join the sex trade and women who are trafficked into the sex trade

human trafficking of women and young girls

Interpol estimates human trafficking of women and young girls to be a $1 billion global industry that continues to grow year after year. It is a trade that feeds on the miseries of the world’s poor, and the ravages wrought by death and destruction.    

Yet it is wrong to classify all women who make it to the world’s oldest profession as victims of trafficking. That’s what filmmaker and journalist Ananya Chatterjee-Chakraborti’s film Understanding Trafficking seeks to convey.

Using the metaphor of Sita (of the Ramayana) who stepped out of her bounds and got whisked away by the forces of evil, the filmmaker attempts to go beyond the figures to understand the social milieu that causes women from Nepal, India and Bangladesh to be trafficked across international borders in eastern India.

The filmmaker stresses the important distinction between migration and trafficking. Focusing on the former, she points out that migration by both rich and poor for better prospects has always existed and will always exist. Nations must recognise this and formulate an appropriate policy to deal with it. Lack of such a policy in Nepal has opened the floodgates of corruption in that country, while sending countless women migrants to their doom.  

The hilly, landlocked country of Nepal has very little land available for agriculture. Indeed, agriculture in these parts can never be supported through small landholdings. Women are keen to migrate and must do so to support their families. However, the absence of a clear-cut policy forces them into the clutches of unscrupulous traffickers out to make a fast buck. Consequently, there are between 200,000 and 250,000 Nepalese women in Indian brothels, and a sizeable number catering to the tourism industry in Kathmandu. The existence of a very long border, much of which is in rural, sparsely populated Bihar, is a godsend for both migrants and traffickers.  

Once a woman enters the sex trade, there is no looking back. But their entry into the trade is not their worst experience. Raids to “rescue” the women are the worst. When the police raid a brothel, the women are hounded out in various stages of undress. They are then bundled onto the first plane to Nepal; from there on, flashbulbs and the media follow them. Scant regard is paid to what the women want. One rescued woman tells us: “When we landed in Kathmandu there were flashbulbs all over. We did not want people here to know what we had been through in India. Our families are here, you see. But rather than pay heed to our concerns, the media had our faces on every newspaper in town.”

The initiatives of women’s organisations in Nepal that have set up watch and have started registering migrating women as they cross the border has been filmed well. As has a similar exercise in West Bengal, undertaken through panchayats and the local police, which has been in operation for over a year.  

Understanding Trafficking exposes the routes through which trafficking takes place. The research and interviews with women in Nepal and India are well-handled. So is the training being imparted to these “fallen women” in sports like football and the arts to help rehabilitate them into the mainstream.  

The same cannot be said of Bangladesh.

Poverty causes many Bangladeshi women into the sex trade when they cross the border into India in search of work. Once they enter the profession they are able to return only if they are “rescued” under an Indo-Bangladeshi initiative.  

The story in India is not very different from those of countless others who are lured into the sex trade when they venture out to earn a living. There are, in fact, certain communities like the Beria that think nothing of exploiting their daughters for a steady income. Little girls are exposed to the basics of dealing with clients and then gradually groomed to attend to their needs. The film highlights the plight of Beria girls and their struggle to leave this traditional occupation behind. One Beria girl sought the help of her friends and the West Bengal Commission for Women and was subsequently rescued from Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district. 

Except for a few minor lapses that leave the viewer unsure of what the filmmaker is trying to say -- like the opening sequences that deal with the migration of well-heeled educated women who wish to migrate in search of better opportunities -- the film is thorough and arguably the first to stress the need to allow migration and migrants whilst, at the same time, pulling out all the stops to prevent human trafficking. 

(Rina Mukherji is a Kolkata-based journalist)  

Infochange News & Features, June 2009