Daughters for Sale: India's Child Slavery Scourge

PHOTO: A young Indian boy polishes a shoe on a pavement on World Day Against Child Labor in New Delhi, India, June 12, 2012.Saurabh Das/AP Photo
A young Indian boy polishes a shoe on a pavement on World Day Against Child Labor in New Delhi, India, June 12, 2012.

Millions of Indian children work as slaves in factories, brothels or in the homes of families. Out of poverty and desperation, parents sell their daughters, and human traffickers wait at train stations for runaways and scour for orphans in monsoon-ravaged villages.

On the day that Durga Mala was rescued, she lay crying on the stone floor, where she was attempting to cool her back. She was 11 years old and her skin was covered with blisters, from her shoulder blades to her buttocks. A few days earlier, her owners had poured hot oil over her because they thought she was working too slowly.

Suddenly Durga heard screams and huddled on the floor. Acting on a tip, police stormed the apartment in the heart of Bangalore. When they broke the door down, Durga crossed her arms in front of her chest and closed her eyes. She was only wearing a pair of panties -- that's all the clothing that her owners had allowed her to have. Durga says: "I was ashamed."

One of the men wrapped the small girl in a sheet and brought her to a hospital. Doctors treated her for a number of days. In addition to her burns, she was malnourished, infected wounds covered her fingers and her lips were scarred. "I dropped a glass once," says Durga, "and the woman got angry and pulled my fingernails out, one by one." Sometimes they poked her in the mouth with a needle. Durga was supposed to work, not speak.

It's estimated that millions of children in India live as modern-day slaves. They work in the fields, in factories, brothels and private households -- often without pay and usually with no realistic chance of escaping. The majority of them are sold or hired out by their own families.

According to an Indian government census from 2001, this country of over 1 billion people has 12.6 million minors between the ages of 5 and 14 who are working. The real number is undoubtedly significantly higher because many children are not officially registered at birth -- and the owners of course do their best to keep the existence of child slaves a secret. Aid organizations estimate that three-quarters of all domestic servants in India are children, and 90 percent of those are girls. Although both child labor and child trafficking are illegal, police rarely intervene -- and the courts seldom convict child traffickers and slaveholders.

'She Told Me I Would Be Well Treated'

Durga grew up in Calcutta. When she was seven, her father died, followed two years later by the death of her mother. Her grandmother took in Durga and her three elder sisters, but she couldn't manage to feed all four of them. One girl had to go, so she sold off the youngest. Via an intermediary, a family of total strangers paid 80 rupees for Durga -- roughly the equivalent of €1 ($1.33).

Durga traveled alone by train the nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) to Bangalore. She can't remember the journey, but she recalls her arrival. "The woman picked me up at the train station," she says. "I was afraid but she told me that I would be well treated."

From that day onwards, she cleaned the couple's apartment every day, cooked, did the laundry and the dishes. Durga was never paid, was never given time off and was never allowed to leave the building. The woman beat her often; the man hit her less often. Durga didn't try to defend herself. "Grandma told me I should always be nice," says Durga.

Today, Durga is 12 years old. Her weight has returned to normal, and she has large eyes and full lips. She wears her black hair tied in a knot behind her head. Her white teeth shine as she speaks, lighting up her soft face. Durga lives in Rainbow Home, a children's shelter run by the Catholic organization Bosco. Fifty-six girls live here in two empty rooms, with no chairs or tables. The children play, sleep and do their homework on the floor. They eat together in the hallway.

The home takes up one floor of a school building. The walls in the old building are painted blue and pink, and the caretakers teach the children to wash themselves on a regular basis, and not to immediately hit someone whenever there is a conflict. "It's hard work," says a nun named Anees. "For many children this is the first home that they have ever had," she points out, adding: "They all come from very disadvantaged families and have already experienced too much."

'I'd Like to Be a Lawyer'

Anees lives with the children at the home. Her day begins at 5 in the morning and ends at 11 at night. She sleeps with two other women in a small room.

The children are allowed to watch TV in the room next door. A Bollywood film is showing tonight. Durga sits with the others on the floor. Three friends snuggle up to her, and the smallest one sits on her lap. They are all staring spellbound at the TV. A man is singing and the girls watch enrapt.

Durga also wants to meet a man like that who would like to marry her and wouldn't beat her. She reflects for a moment and runs her fingers across her scarred lips. "And I'd like to be a lawyer," she says.

Nearly every child in the room has spent a large portion of her life working. The eldest is 16 years old. Even with an education, life will be hard for them. With over 8 million inhabitants, Bangalore is India's third-largest city, after Mumbai and Delhi. It's a boom town, glittering yet brutal -- a jungle that many still see as a ray of hope. Every day, over 80 trains arrive at Bangalore City Railway station from nearly every region of the country, jam-packed with abundant cheap labor and destitute individuals who are looking for a brighter future. "This is the trading center for children in southern India," says Father George.

The Salesian priest is nearly 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall, slightly heavyset and wears jeans. He strides through the bustling crowd of thousands, undeterred by the noise and the odors. Every day, George walks through the train station and heads straight to a hut in the middle of one of the railway platforms. This is where his staff members bring the children they have found wandering alone through the train station. "They are highly at risk," says George. "We try to help them before they fall into the wrong hands."

India 's Vulnerable Runaways

Two girls and a boy sit in a small waiting area. Aside from a half-full plastic bag, they have no luggage. They are sitting on a bench at the window and dangling their bare feet over the edge. In front of them is a narrow table, behind which there is just enough room for a female coworker and George, the head of the Bosco aid organization.

The cleric, who was born in southern India, speaks English and five of India's national tongues. The children relax somewhat as he starts to ask them questions in their native language, Kannada. George makes jokes and tells them short stories until they begin to respond. Bhavani, Salthya and Ramesh come from northern Karnataka, one of the poorest regions of southern India. George says: "They are runaways."

There are many runaways in India. The children flee from poverty in the countryside and the brutality of their families, and hope for a better life in the big city. Bangalore primarily attracts children from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which together make up an area much larger than all of Germany.

They are easy prey for the traffickers who await them at the train station. The men promise them a place to stay and a well-paid job, and when they hand the youngsters over to an employer, the traffickers earn a commission of up to 1,000 rupees, or nearly €12 per child.

'We Are Outnumbered'

In a bid to intercept the children in time, three Bosco staff members are posted at the train station every day, and two work at night. When a train arrives, they keep an eye out for children. There are 10 railway platforms, each nearly 1 kilometer long. If a number of trains roll into the station at the same time, the Bosco aid workers have no chance against the human traffickers. "We are outnumbered," says Father George: "Of the 50 to 60 children arriving each day, we're lucky if we can bring 15 to safety." The others are usually passed on to employers on the very same day.

If the children leave the train station, it's almost impossible to find them. "They are locked inside and have to work up to 12 hours a day," says George. They are very rarely actually paid for their work, he says, noting that many of them are held as Durga was, as slaves.

On the other side of the street is the bus station, which is the second largest transit center for children in Bangalore. Hundreds of buses squeeze by each other every hour. A bridge leads to the market district -- a vast maze of streets and alleyways that is filled with dealers, some of whom sell children.

A man who calls himself Krishna is crouching in the shade of a green building. The heat bores down on the city and the stench of trash hangs heavily in the alley. The man has a narrow face and a very slim body. He spits into a rivulet at his feet. Krishna is a child trafficker. He says: "I help the children."

Krishna lights a cigarette and explains that the work has become difficult because there are too many competitors. Most of them don't do their job as well as he does, he claims. "I know exactly which child matches which employer," Krishna says with pride. "They come here and want work and I find them the right employment," he boasts.

A number of passersby nod to Krishna. He returns the gesture with a barely noticeable movement of the head. "I'm a good man," says Krishna, adding: "People like me." He has been in the business for five years and he immediately notices if a child is strong enough, Krishna claims. The boys are brought to hotels and repair shops, he says, and most of the girls go to tailors or to a colleague who caters to private buyers. Krishna wears a gold watch.

People like Krishna see themselves as placement agencies. They are child traffickers, says George: "They don't care about the children -- they're only concerned about their own income." The priest is riding in one of the three vehicles that Bosco uses every day. His people use the minibuses to bring the children from the train station to the aid organization's headquarters. "Most of them are afraid and don't want to be rescued at first," says George. "Without the minibuses, they would run away from us."

George normally travels around the city on a scooter. But now he has to quickly return to the office, primarily to make some phone calls. His mobile phone is almost constantly ringing.

George remains friendly with every caller. "Everything's fine," that's how he ends each phone call, regardless of whether there's a power failure in one of the homes or not enough money to pay the bills. The 38-year-old priest manages over 100 staff members -- with love, as he says. After all, he can't pay much money.

The priest's office is located in the same building as the reception center. The children here are washed and given a medical checkup -- and they receive shoes and clothing. "As soon as they feel at home, we start with the counseling," explains George. His workplace is on the second floor, and his bedroom is on the third floor. Next to George's computer lies a porcelain figurine of the baby Jesus.

Most of the runaways that Bosco picks up are eventually collected by their relatives and brought back home. The rest are given a place to live in one of the organization's seven homes, and granted a place in the school. Nine out of 10 children are boys; girls have fewer opportunities to run away. "They are sold off at an early age," says George, usually by their own families.

India Sells its Daughters

India is a rising economic power. However, Indian society has not entirely managed to keep pace and, in some ways, is lagging behind by decades, if not centuries. In this society, girls don't have much status -- and they cost their parents money. When a young woman marries, the marriage has to be financed, and she leaves the parental home to live with her husband's family. Boys, however, remain with their families. When they become men, they are expected to look after the older generations and support them financially. Hence, it makes economic sense to sell off girls at a young age.

Aid organizations estimate that 20 to 65 million Indians have already passed through the hands of human traffickers at one point in their lives. Ninety percent of them remain within India's national borders, and the majority are female and under the age of 18.

"Human trafficking works because the victims are afraid and cannot communicate," says Palavi, who works as a social worker. "India is so large that is not necessary to sell women and girls abroad," she says. "If they are Bengalis from the northeastern part of the country, they don't understand a word when they arrive in Mumbai."

Palavi has been working for a number of years in Mumbai's red light district of Khetwadi and, for security reasons, she requested that her last name not be divulged. Working for the aid organization Prerana, she provides counseling to girls who can take shelter in three emergency centers that are open 24 hours a day. "In India young women are bought and sold like slaves. Many of them have children who live in constant danger of also being sold or sexually abused," says Palavi. "They grow up under the beds where their mothers were robbed of their dignity."

Prerana runs a number of homes where the children of prostitutes live. Palavi sighs. Now that the monsoon rains have reached Mumbai, the streets are filling with water and the notebooks in her office are starting to curl from the moisture.

According to one estimate by a state investigative agency, 3 million prostitutes work in Indian brothels -- and some 40 percent of them are minors. As soon as they reach the age of 10, girls are sold to men who pose as marriage matchmakers or promise jobs in the city. When the monsoon washes away rural communities, traffickers drive to what remains of the villages and collect the orphans or purchase the children of farmers who have lost everything and have nothing to give their families to eat anyway.

"When the girls reach Mumbai, they are first locked away in dungeons for a number of weeks," explains Palavi. "They are given hardly anything to eat and raped every day. This breaks their will so that they don't make any trouble in the brothels."

Sold to a Brothel

Sanjana was 11 when her father sold her to a trafficker who claimed that the girl could work in a silk factory near Calcutta. In reality, though, the trafficker sold her to the owner of a brothel. "I just wanted to die," she says.

Sanjana had to work to pay back her purchasing price and pay for accommodation -- at least that's what the brothel owner told her. And she supposedly never managed to pay back her debts. "It was at least 10 men a day, 30 on holidays," she says. Sanjana was locked in a room and her owner negotiated the prices.

"I was always afraid," says Sanjana, adding: "I wasn't allowed to turn down any man." There were practically never any condoms. Palavi says: "Many of the prostitutes in Mumbai have AIDS."

Sanjana was lucky. She escaped after three years of forced prostitution when the police stormed the brothel where she lived. The Bengali couldn't return to her home village, though. "My family hadn't heard from me for a number of years and I wasn't an honorable woman anymore," explains Sanjana: "They never would have taken me in again."

Sanjana is now 22 and earns her living as a seamstress in Mumbai. The brothel owner was never sentenced, nor were the child traffickers.

'I'm Happy Now'

By contrast, Durga Mala has to appear in court roughly once every two months. The trial against her former owner, who is being sued by an aid organization, has been dragging on for the past three years. Durga doesn't like the court. She would actually rather not think back to the time when she was held in that horrible household. "I'm living now," says Durga.

She never heard from her grandmother again. Her grandfather once called from a phone booth and told her that her oldest sister was now married and another was working as a housekeeper. Durga reflects for a long time, but she can no longer remember the names of her sisters. She says: "I'm happy now."

"There's no point in worrying about things," believes George. The big priest is leaning forward on a plastic chair in front of the children's home, and his mobile phone looks tiny in the palm of his hand. The Rainbow Home is celebrating its second-year anniversary. Inside the building, the nuns are brewing tea and the children have been told to wash their hands. On the second floor, girls are starting to sing. George smiles and heads upstairs.