In the dead of night they emerge -- young girls hoping to make some money. They leave home looking for a better life. Instead, they wind up on the streets of major cities around the world, including the United States. More than 700,000 people are trafficked worldwide every year.
Journalist and author Patricia McCormick conducted field research on sex trafficking in Nepal and India, and wrote the novel "Sold" that draws on her research. She was shocked at how many times young girls were sold into prostitution by their own, mostly male relatives as a desperate attempt to get out of poverty.
Once in the brothels, madams often give girls birth control or force them to have abortions. Sometimes, the madams allow girls to get pregnant and raise their children in the brothel, which strengthens their ties to "the life" and makes it even harder for them to leave.
While teen trafficking in the United States may not always be as horrific as it is in Nepal in India, the concept behind it remains the same: young, vulnerable girls exploited by people they trust. McCormick offers tips to parents on how they can prevent their daughters from falling victim to teen trafficking.
Pay attention to any problems with self-esteem. Vulnerable kids are the targets of predators.
Take all runaway threats seriously. The FBI says that within 48 hours, runaways will be approached by someone looking to exploit them sexually.
Educate kids about the problem. The danger isn't being nabbed or abducted off the street; the real danger is the charmer who will lure them away with false promises. If they are aware of the dangers out there, they won't be so easily fooled.
McCormick's "Sold" can help inform girls about teen trafficking. The novel, written for young adults, chronicles the experience of a girl from Nepal sold into sexual slavery.
McCormick hopes the book will raise the consciusness of girls in America and help galvanize them into action.
Read an excerpt from "Sold" below
A Tin Roof
One more rainy season and our roof will be gone, says Ama.
My mother is standing on a log ladder, inspecting the thatch, and I am on the ground, handing the laundry up to her so it can bake dry in the afternoon sun. There are no clouds in sight. No hint of rain, no chance of it, for weeks.
There is no use in telling Ama this, though. She is looking down the mountain at the rice terraces that descend, step by step, to the village below, at the neighbors' tin roofs winking cruelly back at her.
A tin roof means that the family has a father who doesn't gamble away the landlord's money playing cards in the tea shop. A tin roof means the family has a son working at the brick kiln in the city. A tin roof means that when the rains come, the fire stays lit and the baby stays healthy.
"Let me go to the city," I say. "I can work for a rich family like Gita does, and send my wages home to you."
Ama strokes my cheek, the skin of her work-worn hand as rough as the tongue of a newborn goat. "Lakshmi, my child," she says. "You must stay in school, no matter what your stepfather says."
Lately, I want to tell her, my stepfather looks at me the same way he looks at the cucumbers I'm growing in front of our hut. He flicks the ash from his cigarette and squints. "You had better get a good price for them," he says.
When he looks, he sees cigarettes and rice beer, a new vest for himself.
I see a tin roof.
The next morning my stepfather brings me to Bajai Sita's store. He is carrying Ama's empty firewood basket and yet he is wearing his vest, his watch and his best trousers.
"Lakshmi wants to go to work in the city," he tells her.
I feel myself grow taller with his words.
Bajai Sita regards me through little lizard eyes. "Is she a hard worker?" she asks.
"She needs a thrashing on occasion," my stepfather says, "but she is not as lazy as some."
My cheeks flame with indignation, but I say nothing.
"Are you willing to do whatever is asked of you?" she says.
I will use a separate rag to wash the dishes, I want to tell her, and I will wait to take my meal until night.
"Yes," I say. "I will do as I am told."
She goes behind a curtain and returns with the stranger in the yellow dress.
The woman looks me over head to toe, then addresses my stepfather. "How much do you want for her?" she asks, her veil to her lips.
My stepfather squints. He takes in the costly fabric of the woman's dress, the baubles on her ears, the silver bangles on her wrist. "One thousand rupees," he says.
There are not that many rupees in the world! I cringe at his backwardness and pray this refined and lovely city woman does not laugh him out of the store.
Instead, she motions for him to step inside the back room with her. "She has no hips," I hear her say. "And she's plain as porridge. I'll give you five hundred."
I do not understand. I can carry a load of firewood so heavy it would put a man to shame, and my legs are sturdy enough to climb the mountain a dozen times in one day. What does it matter that I have no hips yet?
My stepfather says he knows the going rate for a young girl like me. "No less than eight hundred."
"I will give you half now and the rest when she has proved her worth," she says.
My stepfather grunts, and he and the woman return.
Bajai Sita unfurls a roll of rupee notes from her waistcloth.
My stepfather counts the money, then counts it again.
"Your family will get nothing, not one rupee, if you do not obey your new auntie," says Bajai Sita. "Do you understand?"
I don't. I don't understand at all. A great deal of money has just been paid for work I have not yet done. But I nod.
My stepfather counts the money one more time.
"Tell Ama I will make her proud," I say. "Tell her I'll be back for the next festival season."
But he has his eyes fixed on the wares in Bajai Sita's shelves. He is taking things and putting them in Ama's empty basket: a carton of cigarettes, a bag of sweets, chewing gum, a bottle of rice wine, and a new hat.
While he is busy haggling with Bajai Sita over a watch that has caught his eye, I place two things in the basket: a sweater for Ama and a coat for the baby.
It is a rich and happy day for our family, an 800-rupee day, a festive and auspicious day, and so I add one more thing for Ama: a costly treat that only the headman's wife can afford -- a bottle of Coca-Cola, the sweet drink that people say is like having tiny fireworks in your mouth.
My stepfather scowls, but he does not say anything. On any other day, he would not tolerate such defiance, especially from a mere girl.
But today, I am no mere girl.
Finally, we turn down an alley and arrive in front of a metal gate held fast with a heavy chain. Uncle takes a key from his vest, opens the lock, and hurries me inside.
"Will Auntie be here?" I say.
"Who?" He is distracted, locking the chain behind us.
"Auntie Bimla," I say. "Will she be here?"
"Later," he says. "She'll be here later."
Beyond the gate, a man lies sleeping in front of a door. Uncle nudges him with the toe of his boot. The man rises, lets us in, then locks the door behind us.
This place is dark as a cave, and it smells of liquor and incense.
As my eyes adjust, I see a dozen sleeping girls, some in the corners, some on rope cots.
"What kind of place is this?" I ask uncle.
"Happiness House," he says. "Auntie Mumtaz will explain it all to you."
In the weak morning light, I see that the girls are wearing dresses of every color. They have heavy silver bangles on their wrists and ankles, and earrings of gold and jewels. Their eyes are painted with black crayon, and their lips are drawn on like red chilis.
At home, these girls would be up at dawn to do their chores, not sleeping in their festival clothes until the midday meal.
I wonder if perhaps this Happiness House is where the movie stars live.
In the village school we were taught to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
The teacher gave us difficult problems, asking us to figure out how many baskets of rice a family would have to sell to buy a new water buffalo. Or how many lengths of fabric a mother would need to make a vest and pants for her husband and still have enough for a dress for her baby. I would chew on the ends of my braids while my mind whirred, desperate to come up with the answer that would spread a smile on her soft moon face.
Here I do a different set of calculations.
If I bring a half dozen men to my room each night, and each man pays Mumtaz 30 rupees, I am 180 rupees closer each day to going back home. If I work for a hundred days more, I should have nearly enough to pay back the 20,000 rupees I owe to Mumtaz.
Then Shahanna teaches me city subtraction.
Half of what the men pay goes to Mumtaz, she says. Then you must take away 80 rupees for what Mumtaz charges for your daily rice and dal. Another 100 a week for renting you a bed and pillow. And 500 for the shot the dirty-hands doctor gives us once a month so that we won't become pregnant.
She also warns me: Mumtaz will bury you alive if she sees your little book of figures.
I do the calculations.
And realize I am already buried alive.