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India: Booming child sex trade

Publish Date: 26 Aug 2004

Source: New Nation Online Edition 
By Sharmistha Choudhury

Booming child-sex trade in India

He promised to marry me, so I followed him to Mumbai. There he got me pregnant and then sold me to a brothel owner for a lot of money. I am from Bihar. I wish I could go back home. But I left the village in disgrace and my family will never take me back. - Farida.

Farida is 17 years old. Every once in a while, you see the child that peeps out from behind the mask of a woman. But even when her painted lips smile now and then, the eyes remain dull and joyless. In Ghutiari Sharif, she is not alone. This is where children and teenagers - tricked, seduced or forced into the grim world of prostitution - are most likely to end up. Because this area 'specialises' in child prostitution. Apart from child prostitution, the only tourist attraction here is a somewhat well-known mazaar (shrine).

Ghutiari Sharif is a tiny suburb in the hinterland of 24 South Parganas, only about 32 km from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Unlike other red light areas in Bengal, Ghutiari Sharif is not teeming with NGOs. The unsavoury reputation of the place as a drug-peddling hub could be one reason.

The average age of girl prostitutes here is well below 18. Some are as young as 12 or 13. Once the girls 'grow old' (cross their 20s) they are either shunted off to less-paying brothels in and outside Bengal or simply left to their own devices.

The girls are trafficked to Ghutiari Sharif from all over West Bengal - the rural and peri-urban areas on the fringes of Kolkata, border areas - as well as other states. Their stories reveal the existence of an elaborate trafficking network. Most were duped by lovers or husbands and sold to pimps. While some were sold directly to pimps in Ghutiari Sharif, others changed hands a couple of times before being brought here.

Brothels here are known as 'conclaves'; each conclave has 15-20 girls. The 30-odd conclaves vary from double-storeyed cement buildings to mud-and-brick structures. Each has a 'manager' employed by the brothel owner, whose business it is to deal with clients and guard the conclave like a prison. The girls are not allowed to step out of the conclaves, even to buy so much as a bar of soap or a sachet of shampoo.

Few of the girls here have been able to come to terms with the deception of the men they trusted. The conflict between the brave front they put up and the despair they live with manifests itself in many psychological problems. 'Cutting behaviour', for instance, is common. When Farida is angry and frustrated she cuts her hand with a knife, more to inflict pain on herself than to commit suicide. Some girls are also given to hysterical bursts of laughter, a variety of addictions and suicidal tendencies.

An area that has only children and young adults on offer cannot exist without the support of the police and administration. Anshuman Das, Secretary; of Sabuj Sangha (SS), the only NGO working here, says that police raids are few and far between. Business here flourishes even during the day. Over the past year, in fact, most 'conclaves' have smartened up to suit the tastes of high-paying customers and the rates have also gone up.

SS, which started its work with children living on or around railway platforms in this area, conducted an assessment study on the status of children in prostitution and children of women in prostitution living here. SS found the brothel owners wanted the girls to learn some skills. Das recounts: "They asked us if we could start an income generation programme for the girls. Their logic was that once the girls reached the age of 21 or 22, they had no means to earn. The clients wanted only minors."

The programme has not yet taken off, though. SS is short on funds and is trying to work out an arrangement with the Project Concern Foundation and Elton John Foundation, UK. "The first part of our intervention will be aimed at generating awareness on HIV/AIDS and other issues of sexual health. We will also start a clinic," says Das.

SS is banking on a long-term strategy. They are trying to win the trust of the pimps and then, with their help, rehabilitate the girls.

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