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Trafficking is big business along the Indo-Bangladesh border

Usha RAI

05 / 2011

Prostitution has become a booming business on the 151-km India-Bangladesh border. Many of the women, abandoned by husbands or trafficked across the porous border, have entered the trade and continue in it because it provides a steady income. Clearly, the challenge is rehabilitation, not rescue.

Madhumalati, 42, of Burdwan, was married young and has two children, a daughter who is 11 years old and a son who is eight. When she was 34, her husband abandoned her and since she had no parents to turn to, she took to sex work to support her children. For two years she worked in a brothel in Kalna, 82 km from Kolkata. A couple of years later, she moved out of the brothel because of competition from younger, prettier girls. “I was not able to earn enough,” she says.

Madhumalati has been working along the highway leading to Farrakka for the last six years. She hires one of the thatched huts on the roadside to entertain her clients. Like the over 2,000 sex workers of Murshidabad district, a babu (pimp) who lives with her gets her clients. She pays a percentage of her earnings to the babu and gives a fixed amount to the owner of the hut she uses. The babu, who is 12-13 years younger than her, looks after her children while she is at work, gets her medicines and is her companion and support. Earning between Rs 200 and Rs 500 a night, she is able to make Rs 8,000-10,000 a month. Aware that her attractions will diminish with each year spent in the trade, Madhumalati has been saving Rs 100 every month and has got an assurance from the peer educators at the drop-in centre of the West Bengal AIDS Control Society, which is right next to the huts on the highway, that they will help her get her children into school in Behrampore.

Madhumalati and the other sex workers are terrified of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the police. Whenever a BSF truck moves on the highway, the sex workers run from their huts and hide because they demand free sex and if the women don’t oblige they beat them up, she says. The police, in turn, hassle their clients and take money off them before leaving.

Like several sex workers in the area, Madhumalati uses the female condom and insists that her clients too use the ones she supplies them. A bigger problem is the alcohol that clients force her to drink with them. Now she has got so used to alcohol that she needs a drink to calm her nerves and dull the aches and pains of her body. Her babu, a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler who moved into the more lucrative sex trade and flits across the porous border at will, is urging her to give up alcohol and save money. He is confident that in five to six years, with the money saved on alcohol and other unnecessary expenses, he will be able to buy land in India and even get himself a voter ID card.

Anuradha, 27, is from Bihar and the mother of three. Her two older children are in a residential school in Bihar. Her husband, a lawyer, died of a heart attack and ever since, Anuradha has had to fend for herself. Her brother, local guardian to her children, does not know she is a sex worker. He thinks she works in homes as a domestic worker. Her son, who was in her womb when her husband died, lives with her.

Like Madhumalati, Anuradha operates from a hut on the highway for which she pays Rs 50 a month as rent. When she gets a client, she tries to leave her son outside but he insists on coming in so she works only at night when he is asleep and clients are not put off by his presence. Unlike Madhumalati’s attractive home, which is close to the railway line and away from her area of work on the main highway, Anuradha’s hut has only a bed and some basic utensils. She lives and operates out of this hut and has a babu who provides her clients and takes a cut from her earnings.

While Madhumalati has got herself an LIC policy, Anuradha has a bank account and puts aside Rs 1,200-1,500 at a time. “I have saved Rs 12,000 since I joined the profession. I could not have got this amount of money in any other profession,” she says. She buys half-a-litre of milk for her child every day and has fish once a week. She shares her meals and discusses her problems with Suman, a 40-year-old Bengali woman who was abandoned by her husband. Suman’s son and daughter are married and she does not want to be a burden on them. A diabetic, Suman looks frail and old and receives clients only at night when her age is not that evident.

At Jalagi, Laila Bibi, Jyoti, Sabrina and Janvi from adjoining villages, all abandoned by their husbands, are in the profession together. Laila, in her early-40s, is the group leader and the acknowledged ‘guru’. Earlier, she used to smuggle rice into Bangladesh for a living. “The sentries on the border would not allow me to cross the border unless I had sex with them. So five years ago I switched to the sex trade which is more lucrative, and there is a bonus if you get a client who really loves you,” she admits. The BSF are her clients. She has 10 young girls from Bangladesh and the surrounding villages. “If the demand increases, I can get 10 more girls,” she says.

Jyoti, in her mid-30s, has three children to support and stays with her parents. Her parents don’t know she is in prostitution. They think she works at a health centre and can be called for duty any time – morning or evening. From her earnings she spends Rs 2,000 on educating her three children.

And so prostitution and smuggling flourish on the India-Bangladesh border, particularly in Murshidabad sector, and have become a booming business. Travelling across the 151 km of border in this district you see small shacks dotting both sides of the road leading to the Farrakka Barrage. Young women sit in front of their huts preening themselves and soliciting clients. Trucks stop by for a quick meal and some fun. Despite some solid looking fencing, the border is largely porous with several illegal points of entry for traffickers, migrants and smugglers. At Shamsherganj too, also in Murshidabad district, there is a thriving red light area on the riverfront.

While a lot of the women are in prostitution because of poverty, lack of education or because their husbands have abandoned them or died and they have children to bring up, several young girls, particularly from Bangladesh, have been duped by members of their own community who promise them jobs in India or marry them and bring them to India and then sell them. Bangladeshi women who have made good money and are now ‘madams’ return to their villages looking prosperous and persuade families to send their children promising wealthy grooms or jobs.

So, round the year, young girls and boys from both countries sneak across the border smuggling and looking for work. From smuggling to the sex trade seems to be the natural order of transition for many young girls, and boys who become pimps. Those trafficked from Bangladesh are sold in the red light areas of India in and around Murshidabad in West Bengal, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai.

A dialogue has to be initiated between the governments of India and Bangladesh to develop a standard operation procedure (SOP) for the repatriation of trafficked children. For the last 10 years, NGOs have been demanding a bilateral treaty between the two countries for a comprehensive collaboration and mutual assistance programme. They argue that the treaty is necessary for convergence of efforts in rehabilitation of trafficked victims as well as prosecution of traffickers in both countries.

The Sanjog Project, with leading anti-trafficking organisations in India and Bangladesh, was initiated in 2003 to raise awareness and build capacities to work against cross-border and domestic trafficking in the region. In the second phase of the project, it was decided to move the fulcrum of the effort from larger cities to the rural hinterland where trafficking originates. Many NGOs and community-based organisations active on both sides of the border joined the effort. Four cross-border research papers were also commissioned for a deeper understanding of life on the border and protection of children, adolescents and women. To ensure its sustainability, Sanjog was established as an independent organisation to deal with issues of trafficking.

Roop Sen, secretary of Sanjog, says seven years after the National Human Rights Commission did a study on trafficking, there is still no centralised data on the number of children and adults in sex work – Indians as well as those from Bangladesh and Nepal. However, there are figures on the number of girls rescued. Sen says 500 girls are rescued every year, largely from Mumbai but also Delhi. And their numbers are increasing. While there has been a decline in the number of girls trafficked from Kathmandu, a substantial number of girls are from Bangladesh. Within India, most girls are trafficked from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

There are three categories of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Those coming in search of work and then being exploited; those being trafficked for sex work, very often in connivance with people from the village who even marry the girl, take her to India and then sell her; women who have been abandoned by their husbands and enter prostitution to support their children. There are also many children who stray across the border and are caught.

Traffickers have political clout, social reach and economic power and manage to get away even when caught. There are at least two instances of village elders approaching the rescued girls’ parents and offering them huge sums of money to drop the case against the traffickers.

Though it often takes years to rescue a trafficked girl, the challenge is in rehabilitation. However dehumanising the work of the sex worker, after three to four years under the arclights of the big city and the money earned, many girls find it difficult to settle back into the humdrum of village life or even an arranged marriage. Making gamchchas (towels) or rolling beedis is not monetarily rewarding. Jyoti, who was abandoned by her husband and has three children, says: “I suffered violence in my marriage and I continue to suffer violence in this work. But at least I have the satisfaction of earning enough money to educate my children.” Sanjog has studied 250 women and children who were rescued and sent home.

In the case of rescued young boys who have been trafficked for labour too, sheer poverty forces them to re-enter the workforce. An estimated 20% are re-trafficked or migrate again in search of work. Many felt their rescue was a form of punishment. Rescued children need to be put into school and provided skills that will enable them to stand on their own feet.

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