Last July, Shikha Mondal, 16, went missing from her marital home in Tangra village in Bongaon block of North 24 Parganas district. One month after she had disappeared when neighbours inquired why Shikha had still not returned, they were told that she got ‘lost’ while grazing cattle.
In Mahakhola village in Nadia district, Belika Khatun, 15, was sent with her aunt to get ‘married’ to a “good boy” in Delhi three years ago. Since then, her daily wage labourer parents have not heard from her.
It’s common for young girls to ‘vanish’ or ‘go missing after marriage’ or get ‘lost’ from villages along the 2,000 kilometre Indo-Bangla border in the North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts of West Bengal. According to the Bengal CID, the number of missing children from the state increased from 4,621 in 2008 to 8,598 in 2010 and North 24 Parganas and Nadia top the list of the highest number of missing people in the state.
And this despite the fact that there’s Border Security Force (BSF) on the Indian side and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) across the fence to prevent smuggling and human trafficking along the porous Indo-Bangla border.
People in the border villages constantly live in terribly unsettling conditions. First, there’s the issue of security forces conducting themselves with impunity. Local people talk of being subject to verbal abuse, intimidation, beatings and even torture, on the suspicion that they are illegal migrants. In fact, the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a non-governmental organisation based in Kolkata, has documented over 61 killings along the border by the BSF since 2007.
According to MASUM, the rights of residents along the border areas are constantly being violated. On the pretext of conducting searches for illegal migrants, security men storm into people’s homes whenever they want and harass them.
The District Human Development Report, North 24 Parganas, 2010 survey conducted by the district authorities last year has shown that it is the women who are the most vulnerable in such circumstances. A situation only made worse by the prevailing food scarcity and gender inequality. Poverty coupled with poor education, the lack of livelihood opportunities, and abysmal health care dooms many to life of uncertainty, with women and girls often falling easy victims to traffickers.
Little did 16-year-old Rinku Mondal know what she was getting into when she left her border village of Boaldah in Bongaon block of North 24 Paraganas, in hope of augmenting the family’s meagre income. All she wanted was to earn enough to enable her two younger brothers to study.
The second of four siblings, Rinku dropped out when she was 10 to help her mother rolls ‘bidis’. It was after four years of living a hand to mouth existence that she decided to accompany her neighbour’s daughter to Mumbai, despite her parents’ opposition. Rinku’s mother Rekha recalls that fateful day, “I told her not to go and that we would manage with the money that we were earning. I warned her that Mumbai was not a good place and bad things happened to girls there. But she didn’t listen to me and quietly left.”
Rinku returned home some months later with ‘sindoor’ (vermillion that’s a symbol of marriage) in her hair, claiming that she was working in a house and had married a man who had helped her get a job in Mumbai. Although her family was angry that Rinku had married without informing them, they asked her to stay back with them. Rinku, however, soon returned to Mumbai. “I pleaded with her not to go but she said she had to earn more money so that we could lead a better life. When she gave me Rs 9,000 (US$1=Rs 44.9), I knew something was wrong,” says Rekha.
Her worst fears came true when Rinku called her last year saying that she had been caught in a police raid and had been sent to a shelter home run by an NGO in Mumbai. Since then, Rekha has been trying to secure the release of her daughter with the help of Charuigachhi Light House Society (CLHS), a community-based organisation working on child protection issues in Bongaon block of North 24 Parganas.
“There is a demand for young girls in prostitution and going by the numbers of girls rescued from the red light areas of Mumbai, Pune and Delh, the situation is alarming. In 2009, Rescue Foundation, an NGO in Mumbai rescued 176 girls from the red light area in Mumbai. The youngest of them were girls aged 16,” says Roop Sen of Sanjog, a Kolkata-based resource organisation working on anti-trafficking and safeguarding child rights.
A recently released research into sex trafficking of girls in West Bengal commissioned by Sanjog in 2010, reiterates the fact that in the situation of stark poverty, it is natural for the girls to want a better life.
According to its researcher, Paramita Banerjee, adolescent girls desire a life different from the one they have experienced. Most often they end up in brothels across India, with the most likely destination being Mumbai. However, according to Sen, since sexual exploitation is no longer just confined to brothels, tracing and rescuing them becomes very difficult.
Sanjog is using its knowledge and resources to strengthen and sustain efforts to address trafficking and exploitation of adolescents and children, has teamed up with several community based organisations (CBOs) like CLHS. One such initiative focuses on reducing the prevalence of early marriage of girls in these districts, a major factor facilitating trafficking is the region. Cross-border tensions and uncertainty mean that education is almost certainly disrupted. This, in turn, has serious consequences like early marriage.
More than 80 per cent of the children in rural North 24 Parganas are married before they turn adults, according to government figures. This not only impacts negatively on their physical health but also their mental development, says CLHS. This is part of an anti-trafficking consortium of five organisations in the district. It is working to sensitise the community against marrying their daughters before they turn 18.
Besides community meetings, they organise street plays and health camps where awareness-raising information including ways to prevent HIV/AIDS is disseminated. During interactive sessions with the mothers, the importance of educating daughters is emphasised.
“Families are not keen on educating their children, particularly their daughters. Poverty drives them to marry them young because then they do not have to pay dowries. They don’t realise that their daughters are at risk of being trafficked,” says CLHA founder Palash Roy.
A survey conducted by the National Commission for Women in 2009 revealed that the trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation took place in 378 districts. This accounts for roughly 62 per cent of the total number of districts in India. West Bengal, given its porous border regions, emerged as a prime site for this problem.
The state has attempted remedial measures. But their impact has been insignificant largely because of the lack of political will, and the fact that the various implementing bodies have failed to work together. This is a tragic situation indeed for the health and well-being of communities living near the border, who continue losing their daughters to forces far beyond their control.