Robbed of an innocent childhood, Bhavani, a young girl from southeast India, escaped the brothels thanks to a guardian angel.
How she got there is an all-too-common tale of "caring" relatives promising parents and children a better life, when in fact they're selling the children like cheap goods.
Born into a poor family in Pileru, a district of Andhra Pradesh in southeast India, then-12-year-old Bhavani (not her real name in order to protect her identity) helped her parents toil in the fields instead of going to school. Her six sisters and three brothers also helped, but at the end of the day, it always seemed there was never enough food, and the future always looked bleak.
Things looked up one afternoon when a maternal cousin said she knew of a perfect husband for Bhavani. The young man worked in bustling New Delhi and wanted his bride-to-be to move there. Bhavani seized the opportunity and married Amar, thrilled at the prospect of a new and hopefully prosperous life.
Even though she was young, she said she was happy to tie the knot, especially since her parents received money and bore none of the marriage expenses. After the wedding, Bhavani, Amar and the aunt left for New Delhi. When they got there, Amar asked his new bride to stay with one of his cousins until he could find them the right home.
Bhavani's honeymoon ended abruptly. Amar's cousin's house turned out to be a brothel in the city's red light district. The real ordeal began the next day when she had to "take care" of a customer and refused.
Beatings and starvation followed. Bhavani had nowhere to go, no money and no one to call. After seven days of struggle, she gave in.
Married and Sold 12 Other Brides
Through discussions with other girls Bhavani realized her "husband" had promised a better life to 12 other brides that same year. She also learned that she had been sold for about $1,000.
After five abortions and innumerable sexual diseases, Bhavani was saved by Prajwala, an Indian organization that rescues trafficked victims. Tipped off by a faux "john," the police helped Prajwala get the young girl out of the brothel.
"No one should tolerate trafficking, no child, no woman deserves it," said Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of Prajwala, who has spent more than a decade rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked women and children.
"We have to break the culture of silence and respond against it," she said.
The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that about 1 million children enter the sex industry every year. The United Nations claims that at least 4 million people are involved in trafficking with Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa among the most vulnerable areas.
"Given the incredible creative steps traffickers use to obscure what they're doing, no figures inspire total confidence," said Greg Fields, managing director at Global Fund for Children. Children are not only exploited for sexual purposes but they're also sold as cheap labor in sweatshops or on farms or as domestic workers, which further blurs the statistics, he explained.
"Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry after drug trafficking," said Katherine Chon, co-executive director of the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based grassroots organization that combats trafficking and modern-day slavery.
She believes that the billion-dollar industry will outstrip drug trafficking because enforcement isn't as strict and it's harder to identify.
Krishnan laments the fact that there are millions of Bhavanis out there and that deceit is the name of the game in the lucrative business of child trafficking. "Most trafficking involves deception in the name of a job, marriage, domestic work or caring for children," she said.
Krishnan, 33, first got involved in saving kids by setting up a school for prostitutes' children in 1995. In her mind it was a way to keep kids from following their mother's line of work. Once she gained the mothers' trust with the school, they came forward with sordid tales of young, duped recruits and thus began Prajwala's all-out effort to protect and rehabilitate children.
She now pays prostitutes to act as informers in the red light district.
"As soon as a new child comes, we try to reach them the earliest possible, but most of the time it's too late," Krishan said.
Supply and Demand and the Middleman
Like any cash-making venture, demand drives supply.
More local and foreign customers demand and will pay top dollar for children's services. Meanwhile, on the supply side, traffickers prey on the vulnerability of poor families and societal gender discrimination. And, of course, there is the middleman.
"So much attention is placed on children, and not enough on brokers," said Chon, who believes that to solve this epidemic, there must be a crackdown on smugglers. Reduce the incentives, because unfortunately traffickers will always find poor, vulnerable communities, she said.
Prajwala, along with other grassroots organizations, continues to fight for kids' education, job training and equal rights to protect communities from traffickers and to raise overall awareness. Prajwala programs have been copied in other parts of India as the organization advocates for policy changes to protect children and to fight widespread corruption.
In Krishnan's view, India has a long way to go, but foreign tourists also need to be made aware of the rampant trafficking.
Ken Franzblau is trying to do just that. He spearheads Equality Now's campaign against sex tourism from the United States to Southeast Asia. No hard numbers exist, but he estimates that more than 100,000 men -- mostly from the United States, Europe and Japan -- go to Thailand, the Philippines and other parts of Asia with one intent in mind.
First, there's got to be a crackdown on demand created by men who are the customers, he said, describing the difficulties of prosecuting tour operators and customers who aren't on U.S. soil to get their kicks.
On the ground, enforcement also has hurdles to overcome.
Fields, from Global Fund for Children, says that in less-prosperous countries, authorities tend to turn a blind eye to making a profit, regardless of its nature.
"Pressures are different, allowances are different," he said.
Franzblau suggests having the United States apply international pressure.
"The U.S. should be more forward in getting women's rights and equality," Franzblau said. "Nobody is coming to the U.S. for sex tourism."
As for Bhavani, she's 21 years old now and working as a trained welder in a factory, despite being HIV positive.
That success story keeps Krishnan hopeful. "I look at the children, their smile sustains me," she said.