It’s been several weeks of dangerous undercover work for O.U.R. operatives in brothels, bars, and on the streets of India, but the work is beginning to pay off. Three sex traffickers have been arrested and the undercover investigation is continuing.
The following are excerpts from an interview with one of the undercover operatives working in South Asia:
INTERVIEWER: How do you find child sex slaves in India and how do you rescue them?
INVESTIGATOR: An investigator, who I’ve worked with before in South Asia, and I, joined local NGOs or Non-Governmental Organizations in India: Indian Rescue Missions and ARZ (Anyay Rohit Zindagi)*. The first one works primarily in Goa and then the other one works in Mumbai.
We spent the first few days investigating brothels. There’s a particular red light district called Kamathipura. It’s one of oldest red light districts in history and definitely in Asia, so it’s been operating for thousands of years. It’s just been culturally accepted.
We went to at least six brothels in Mumbai trying to identify victims. We didn’t identify any minors at that time, and in India 18 and under is considered a minor. In Southeast Asia, it’s 16 and under, in Cambodia it’s 14 and under, so it varies from country to country.
We also investigated dance bars. Dance bars are different from strip clubs in the United States. These girls are in full clothing, sometimes western clothing or traditional Hindi clothing with saris. There’s a band playing and they stand in front of the stage holding a lot of money in their hands, which is the tips they’ve received. If there’s a particular girl someone is interested in, they talk to what’s considered the controllers or handlers.
We did identify minors there. The intel that we gathered, the images that we gathered, the footage that we gathered, we turned that over to the local police. We have a great working relationship with them and they are planning to act this week as far as raiding and shutting down those dance clubs.
During this investigation we did identify about 30 percent of the girls as minors. Each club is different. They range from five to 25 girls per club and on average two to seven of the girls were under the age of 18.
INTERVIEWER: How do these girls end up there?
INVESTIGATOR: Some of these girls end up there by choice. It’s hard for us to think about “do I sell my body just to have something to eat? Do I sell my body to feed my child that night?” So a lot of girls end up there because of their social-economic situation. A lot of them just don’t know any better.
They may be in a rural village and they are approached by a trafficker or a handler saying, “Hey, you come to the big city and you can be a singer or you can be in a Bollywood movie. You’re beautiful.”
They do it because they want to earn money to be able to send it back home, or a lot of these girls just want to go to school. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard from these girls that they just want to go to school, not necessarily college or university. They just want to go to high school and this is a way for them to pay for it. I think all too often that’s the majority of the cases.
So they see this as an opportunity to get paid and go to school and eventually get out of India and go to the United States or to Europe. So, they are typically coerced. They’re promised a lot of things, a lot of false promises.
And once they’re in there they become indebted to the trafficker or the handler and they owe them a certain percentage of what they make. And it’s never enough for them to be released. So they are always under restrictive movement. They are always under control.
Regardless, you know, they keep promising the girls that ‘if you make enough money, if you save enough money, or you keep enough of your cut, then you’ll be able to go to school or you’ll be able to get out of debt bondage.’ But, they never let them go. Eventually, these girls become so seasoned that it just becomes a choice and a career for the rest of their life.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the girls that are brought to the temple.
INVESTIGATOR: In a part of central India they have a ritual where the girls are brought by family members to the temple, right before they hit puberty and begin their first period, to be washed with holy water by a priest.
The family can now say, ‘My daughter has been blessed. She has been washed in the holy water.’ This now makes her holy and sacred so she can then go back to the village and men are allowed to have sex with her. This is considered a blessing on the man by the Hindi gods and the family sees this as revenue, as a way of making money.
As an undercover operative spending time there and witnessing some of these girls, these victims, is difficult. Some of them have been recovered. We saw a project where they are now learning how to sew, which makes them valuable to the community because they can make clothing and sell it, so it gives them a value. They’re able to bring something to the community other than being just a temple prostitute or “devadasis”.
INTERVIEWER: Is this considered a religious ceremony?
INVESTIGATOR: It is considered a Hindu religious ceremony.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s not considered wrong?
INVESTIGATOR: No, it’s not. It’s just culturally accepted. With that said though, this comes from typically a rural part of inner India where a lot of the older practices and ideas are still in place. But, when you get to the larger cities, there’s a majority of India, even in recent years, where women are receiving rights, for instance, the right to vote. There’s been a big change, a big trend in India wanting to change from some of their older ways and adopting some more traditional western ways, especially in regards to human rights when it comes to women and children.
INTERVIEWER: What can O.U.R. do to help these families?
INVESTIGATOR: I think one way is through education. How O.U.R. is involved with our local NGO partner in India is a good way. There are three pillars of anti-human trafficking: Prevention, Intervention, which typically O.U.R. does, and then Aftercare and O.U.R. is a part of that too. We do all three of those but primarily intervention and then making sure the girls are rehabilitated after the rescue. The rescue really begins after they’ve been taken out of that situation.
So O.U.R. can help by partnering with NGOs and possibly funding education for these girls. It’s a small amount of funding for some of these projects. And the reason why I mention this sewing project is that when I visited this project and saw the sewing room and talked to some of the girls there, some of the girls aren’t victims.
These are young girls in the community that, if they weren’t learning this skillset and learning how to sew and make clothing, more than likely, they would be used for a temple prostitute. But this puts a value on them to the community, where they’re bringing in revenue, where the family doesn’t feel, “well, financially, we don’t have enough money.”
There’s a balance there between their social-economical situation and their faith. I think the family, if they have a choice, would not sell their daughter to bring in that revenue. Despite their faith, I think they wouldn’t do that. This sewing project is teaching the girls that they have potential, so it’s the prevention aspect. And then it also gives the opportunity to the women who have been recovered and are previous victims of the situation to find value in themselves.
When we look at a rehabilitation process, we have a thought process that we’re used to, our western thought process, and the luxuries we have around us, however, something such as a hundred dollar sewing machine and being able to make a small amount of money creates tremendous value to a girl or woman in India.
Some of the girls, who hopefully will never become victims, know how important a skillset is because, for them, especially in the Hindi religion, there’s not a lot of value on a woman. She doesn’t serve a lot of purpose in the community. Usually, it’s just for sexual purposes or for work or for kids, so when you give them an opportunity or you teach them a skillset like sewing, it gives them a purpose of self-worth and then worth within the community because it’s actually generating revenue.
A lot of times when we see human trafficking or sex trafficking or even labor trafficking, we think of these big monstrous cities like New Delhi or Mumbai where it is really prevalent, but the problem starts, a lot of times, in these rural areas where it’s extremely poor. It’s poor in the big cities, but it’s extremely poor in the rural areas. Again, the education is less than it is in some of the bigger cities so the people have a tendency to be a lot more vulnerable to being coerced or manipulated or even intimidated into the circumstances of being trafficked.
Note: This is an on-going investigation and details concerning arrests and rescued girls will be discussed when it is safe to do so.
Edited by: Cheryl L. Karr
*ARZ = Anyay Rohit Zindagi http://www.arzindia.org/ (an Indian NGO, non-profit)
If you would like to support future rescue operations in India, please consider donating through our website www.OURrescue.org. If you have specific information on child trafficking in India, please contact us at info@OURrescue.org.