Silent slaves: Stories of human trafficking in India

By — December 30, 2013

Extreme poverty and lack of education and employment make girls more vulnerable to being trafficked from rural areas to big cities in India. (Michael Douglas Bramwell)

In a six-bed women’s ward in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital lies a frail 15-year-old girl. Her face and head are bandaged, leaving visible only a bruised blue-black eye and swollen lips. Burn marks and scabs extend down her neck to her whole body, and a disfigured ear clings on to her face like a piece of mangled flesh. A strange stench surrounds her. The nurse who comes to check on her explains the smell: A wound on the girl’s skull is rotting and has filled with maggots.

The girl tries to speak. In a muffled voice, she says: “My employer would beat me every day with a broom and a stool. Many times she would put a hot pan on my body and burn my skin. That’s how the skin on my skull started peeling out as she repeatedly burned the same spot.”

Somehow the horrific brutality inflicted on this teenager is not an isolated case. Thousands of girls are trafficked every year from remote villages to large cities and sold as domestic workers. Many are abused or sexually exploited.

Extreme poverty, lack of education and employment, and poor implementation of the government’s minimum wage system in rural India make girls more vulnerable to being trafficked. The 2013 Global Slavery Index, published by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, an organization that works to end modern slavery, found that almost half of the 30 million “modern slaves” in the world are from India.

But how does such slavery thrive, let alone exist in the 21st century? Over a few months in 2013, I traveled with a camera crew and conducted several interviews on the trafficking of girls in India. The accounts below are based on my findings.

Selling humans

In the western part of India’s capital city, New Delhi, more than 5,000 domestic worker placement agencies operate out of a nondescript neighborhood called Shakurpur Basti. For years, the agencies have flourished by indulging in the business of trafficking minor girls and selling them as domestic slaves in the cities. To expose this racket of trafficking and to uncover their modus operandi, we waited for days with a hidden camera, posing as a family interested in employing a girl.

What we found was shocking.

The agencies liaise with natives of remote villages, mostly from the eastern part of India, who, as “local agents,” carry out the first step in the trafficking process. The agents identify underage girls from extremely poor families and lure them to the city with the promise of a good job. Once the girls are in the city, the agents sell them for about US$120 each to a domestic worker placement agency. The agency then re-sells her to a family as domestic labor, charging between US$600 and US$700.

The girls are made to work 14 to 16 hours per day and do all of the household chores, from cooking and cleaning to baby-sitting. They are paid almost nothing. Often their monthly wage is paid to the agencies—not to them.

Most of the girls get trapped in this vicious cycle forever. Unaware and often illiterate, they have little knowledge of their rights and no clue of how to return home. The traffickers and agencies make the most of their vulnerability and, for years, move them from one household to another. Many are sexually exploited.

Three girls

1. Sixteen-year-old Manju told me how she was trafficked to Delhi when she was just 12.

Manju’s parents—daily wage laborers with five children—agreed to send the teenager to the city after a local agent told them she could get a good job there. But instead, Manju said, she was taken to be sold to a much older man.

The deal—50,000 Indian rupees (US$800)—failed, because the agent demanded more money. That night, the agent raped Manju, angry that he had spent money traveling with her. He cursed her and blamed her for the failed deal.

The next morning, Manju said, the agent sold her as a domestic worker for about 35,000 rupees (US$560) to a New Delhi household. After 11 months, she asked the agent to send her home. Instead, he locked her in an office and raped her again, she said.

Almost a year and a half later, Manju was rescued by a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). She is now fighting a legal battle to get the agent convicted for rape and trafficking.

2. Twenty-one-year-old Vinita had lost all hope of ever seeing her family again. Trafficked from a tea garden in northeast India, she was sold as a bride to a 50-year-old man for about 70,000 rupees (US$1,200). When a rescue team, made up of NGO workers and police, found her almost a year after she had been held captive, she broke down. Holding on to her sister tightly and crying, Vinita said that every attempt of hers to escape had failed, and that when she was caught she had been beaten mercilessly.

3. Sixteen-year-old Mausami was three months’ pregnant when she was rescued from her abusive employer’s house. She had been sexually abused and denied contact with anyone. She said that in return for her 14 to 16 hours of work every day, all she got was abuse.

A year later, back home with her family in her village of Lakhimpur in Assam, Mausami said she had lost the desire to live. She said she almost never left her house, fearful of what people would say about her. Hiding her face behind a veil, she said, “I feel very lonely and want to kill myself. I guess that’s the only way out of this misery.”

For these girls, recovering from the trauma of this horrific past is extremely difficult. Once back in their villages, the girls are ostracized and face silent discrimination. Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi lawyer who has helped rescue many girls, says that despite the girls being rescued after a huge struggle and a legal battle, with the lack of government policies to uphold their fundamental rights, they face the danger of being victimized once again.

It is at this stage that the desperate need for effective centers of counseling is underscored. It is the most basic step, necessary for the girls to restart their lives with dignity and strength. Yet there are few such resources.

No recognition, no progress

A 2013 report by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization found that the number of domestic workers in India ranges from 2.5 million to 90 million. And despite being the largest workforce in the country, the workers are unrecognized and unprotected by Indian law.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has formulated a national policy, which is still awaiting cabinet approval. The policy draft, which includes recommendations by the National Advisory Council, an advisory body set up to advise the prime minister, entitles domestic workers to benefits of defined normal hours of work with weekly rest, paid annual and sick leave, maternity benefits, and, most important, entitlement of minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948.

But for now, there is no policy that entitles domestic workers to minimum wage or to benefits such as health insurance, pension, or leave from work. And as long as the law does not account for the domestic workers, they remain easy targets who are often exploited.

Yet all hope is not lost. The 15-year-old girl I met in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital is back in the eastern state of Jharkhand and studying in a state-aided residential school/rehabilitation facility. Forgetting the abuse and violence she suffered is not going to be easy for her, but with counseling, she is slowly recovering and daring to dream of a brighter future.

*The names of all the girls have been changed to protect their identity.