The vanishing girls of the Northeast
With zero conviction rate of offenders, trafficking of young women and children is rampant in some north-eastern States
This past October 8, Mary, a 23-year-old tribal woman from Chandel district of Manipur, arrived at an Indian airport from Singapore after six months of drudgery, police detention, mental torture and public humiliation.
Back in her home country, Mary was more than happy to be united with her family.
Mary, and the human rights activists who helped her escape exploitation in that country, know that she is lucky. Because, not too many girls of her age trafficked from the Northeast meet such a happy ending. Hundreds, if not thousands, of girls from the region are suspected to be in virtual house arrest and being exploited in many metros of India and South East Asia through an established cartel of human trafficking. Those caught in it have little leeway of escaping it.
Mary's story needs to be told. Her mistakes need to be highlighted to help caution vulnerable girls of her age from facing a similar situation. She was approached by Robert, who posed himself as “the director of Business Associate Group". He offered to give her a plum job in Singapore.
Lured by the promise of living in a land of plenty, Mary -- from a poor family --easily fell into the honey trap. She agreed to move to Singapore. On arrival, she was certainly given a job, but not the one she hoped for. The job entailed doing domestic work in the house of one Sunil Sen from morning till night. No wages came her way. No freedom of movement.
Worse came when Mary was charged by her employer with larceny. Though she denied the charge, police arrested her on August 21. She was lodged in a remand home with strict instructions not to flee Singapore without the knowledge and permission of the authorities. On September 22, the court found her not guilty and ordered her release.
On getting to know of her plight, her family in Chandel approached the Indigenous Women and Children Foundation, Tamenglong in Manipur, on August 27, seeking help to rescue her since she was kept in a foreign country against her will. Aided by some human rights groups, the Foundation sought help from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to help bring her home.
Though Mary is now safe at home, it is not the end of the story of trafficking in the Northeast. A large number of women of her age, also children, are not safe.
A number of human traffickers, through organisations attached to religious institutions, charitable schools and even NGOs, are reportedly spreading their net in some north-eastern States. With the
help of locally commissioned agents - mostly women, they trap people largely in rural areas. The primary targets are the unlettered parents who cannot afford to provide proper education to their children or help them grease a few palms to grab good jobs in a corrupt system. Almost all such parents get trapped by the lure. The occasional advisories issued by the State Governments to get in touch with authorities if such traffickers approach them, or if their children have already been taken away by them, have little impact on the villagers since these advisories are given out through the media which they have no access to.
Typically, the local agents first take the young women or children by bus to Guwahati. They are then taken by train to a big city like Delhi or Chennai from where they are virtually sold as domestic servants to bigger agents. Selected girls are thereafter shifted to foreign countries. On arrival, their passports are taken away and then forced to work as domestic helps in private homes.
From 2008 to 2011, the Social Welfare Department of the Government of Manipur rescued 180 children from some Indian metros based on complaints lodged by their parents. However, those working in the field regard it as the tip of the iceberg. Five other girls could return home from foreign countries.
Some years back three girls from Churachandpur district, who managed to return to Manipur from Singapore and Malaysia, addressed the media in a press meet in Imphal. They said their handler, one James, didn't give them the white collar jobs he promised them as per their qualifications, and even pocketed all the wages they earned as domestics.
Addressing a press conference in Imphal, the girls said they escaped from him and thereafter begged for money from tourists to return to India. “We didn't even have money to call home to seek help,” one of them said. They bought tickets to return to India from the money given by some generous tourists.
Another shocking case of trafficking had come to light some years ago in Manipur. Two persons, claimed to be running a charitable school in Bengaluru, lured away several children from the Northeast. One such boy rescued by his family had disclosed to this writer that he was regularly raped by one of them. No action was taken against the duo even though the case was brought to light by a media organisation.
From time to time, the Manipur Government has been issuing advisories to parents to get in touch with the State Social Welfare Department for verification before sending their children to any charitable residential school outside the State.
There are also some occasions when the Government has arrested traffickers while transporting children. But there is no report of conviction yet. In one instance, some children were abandoned in a railway station. Though the Government rescued them, the dubious persons who tried taking them out of the State were never booked. This failure of the Government has certainly encouraged traffickers to keep coming to the Northeast and keep spreading their illegal business.
A disturbing development that springs from it is that there are frequent missing reports of young women in the local newspapers.Very few of them get traced like Mary was.
(names and locales are changed to protect privacy of the persons involved).
(The writer is an Imphal-based senior journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)