Be Safe, Be Fearless

Human Trafficking

The International Labour Organization estimates 12.3 million people are in forced labour, bonded labour, forced child labour and sexual servitude. In this global phenomenon, India is a source, transit and destination country.

“… I got a call from my friend saying that I should go and meet her immediately for the job. When I went to meet her, there were two women and a man waiting for me. They gave me some food, which was drugged and put me on a train. They forced me to call my brother and tell him that I had got a job. Since I was not fully conscious, I could not understand what was happening, where I was going, why I was on a train. All my protests were in vain. Two more men joined us on the way. They took away all my belongings – my mobile phone, my gold jewellery, my slippers… We finally reached Delhi and I stayed at someone’s house for that night. The next day, I was sold to a brothel.
Recounting her days at the brothel, Roshni continues, “I was trapped and helpless. I was beaten with a ladle when I refused to work as a prostitute. I told them that my father would kill me if I got into this profession. The lady there said that she had paid for me and so I can’t refuse. I would often think of my children and cry and would again get beaten up for that.”

What is it?

Human trafficking is the abduction, purchase and selling of a human being – mainly a woman or child – for the purpose of sexual exploitation or labour exploitation. It involves the use of force, cheating or tricking someone into trafficking. The trafficking can take place within the borders of a nation state (usually from rural to urban areas) or internationally (usually from poorer to wealthier countries).
Sometimes, there is confusion between smuggling of persons and prostitution / sex work. It is important to understand the differences, which are based on voluntariness:
Smuggling of people means that people are illegally transported [without visas] to another country so they can get jobs or stay with family. Those operating such smuggling networks are as professional and often dangerous as traffickers. The difference is that the smuggled person has consented. For example, the so-called Boat People from Cuba and Vietnam or Africans escaping from poverty try to enter more prosperous countries.
On the other hand, trafficking of children and women is usually done without their consent i.e. they are duped, coerced, purchased and sent to another country. Studies [see below] show that in 40% of the cases, parents have sold their children voluntarily to traffickers because they have problems sustaining the family.
These trafficked people are forced to do certain work, cannot say “no”, and cannot move to another location or work and who often face violence.
However, voluntariness becomes a grey area when we try to understand why women opt to stay in the sex industry. Women or children may have been coerced into prostitution or may have chosen it as a livelihood option. After a few years, for any number of reasons like economic or social stigma, some of them may choose to continue in it. Are they in the sex industry of their free will or because of coercion? Academics have seen economic vulnerability as a form of economic coercion. There are various points of view. The International Sex Worker’s Rights Movement has strongly fought against being called ‘victims’.


We get a better idea of human trafficking by seeing its journey and purpose. There is national and transnational trafficking. Children and women are trafficked from rural areas to bigger cities within national borders (many of those who are trafficked to Mumbai come from remote areas in states such as UP). We often hear of tribal women and children being tricked into coming to cities for exploitative jobs or bought to brothels. Trans-national human trafficking means trafficking from one country to another, usually from a poor country to a more affluent region like Thailand to Europe or Russia to the Gulf. The trafficking of women from Eastern European countries to the West is also increasing.
The purpose can be sexual exploitation or when women and girls are turned into sex slaves, work in brothels or as call girls. In India, women from rural areas are trafficked to the cities, but a lot of trafficking victims are women and girls from neighbouring countries, particularly Nepal and Bangladesh. On the other side of the trafficking chain, Indian girls are trafficked to Gulf States such as Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
It can be for exploitation of labour i.e. to work cheaply in mines, fields, as servants or as beggars. Young boys have been trafficked to the Gulf countries as camel jockeys. Thousands of children are trafficked to work on the cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast – which grows 30% of the world’s cocoa. Trafficked people have been detected in agriculture businesses in Europe such as asparagus plantations in the Netherlands and tomato fields in Spain. Young children have been trafficked to UK to work in (illegal) cannabis cultivation. Children are kidnapped and turned into soldiers in the African wars.
Another form is trafficking for marriage. It can happen both within as well as across national borders. Young girls are forced into marriage with older men. Often they are required to have sex as well as do domestic work. The press has highlighted such a case in Hyderabad.

The Law

There are several international and national laws against trafficking:

The Convention against Transnational Organized Crime
The Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children,which India has ratified on May 5 2011
India prohibits so-called bonded and forced labour through the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, the Child Labour Act, and the Juvenile Justice Act. Victims of bonded labour are entitled to Rs. 10,000 from the Central Government Of Rehabilitation, but this program is unevenly executed across the country
Goa has reacted to various allegations against foreigners being involved in child sexual exploitation by passing the Goa Children’s Act (2003)

According to studies [see below, p. 283], the Indian police is rarely interested in uncovering human trafficking cases in brothels – 82,5% of the clientele have never seen any police interference in brothels.

Any crime, human trafficking included, becomes problematic when it is committed by diplomats, who enjoy immunity. For example, it was just recently detected that from 13 London based Metropolitan Police investigations into trafficking for domestic slavery, 7 involved diplomats! None of them could be prosecuted because of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Going to the Police

What can you do if you suspect that someone you know might have been trafficked? Or if you hear a girl or woman who complains of being kidnapped or duped into prostitution?
You can walk into a police station to inform them or even file a FIR.
However, do be prepared that the police may be reluctant to lodge a complaint. And even if that is done, they may not take steps. There are numerous reasons like there may be no evidence or witnesses. The sex industry is well organised and have their own lawyers and a network of people who will support the brothel owners. A study [see below, p. 284] states that 53.4% of the interviewed brothel owners said that they gave bribes to select policemen.
The other option you have is to go to a NGO working for prostitutes or victims of human trafficking and their children. They may guide you about the problems of using the legal option.

What you can do

As large, international smugglers and crime lords are involved in human trafficking, it becomes very difficult for an individual to take action. You can join NGOs and other groups who are taking preventive action.

Many organisations have held campaigns in economically backward areas warning young women, through posters, not to get trapped by promises of lucrative jobs. 50% of these agents are women [see below, p. 282], so families or the young women are not suspicious or reluctant. Some organisations have asked men to support the police by reporting if women from different countries show up in brothels. For example, the organisation Ban Ying in Germany has made a campaign called “responsible client” asking men to call a helpline when they suspect a sex worker has been trafficked:

P.M. Nair, Sankar Sen: Trafficking in women and children in India, Orient Blackswan 2005