“This is the story of the 21st century’s trade in slave-children. My journey into their underworld took place where its alleys and brothels are most dense – Asia, where the United Nations calculates 1 million children are being traded every day. It took me to places I did not think existed, today, now. To a dungeon in the lawless Bangladeshi borderlands where children are padlocked and prison-barred in transit to Indian brothels; to an iron whore-house where grown women have spent their entire lives being raped; to a clinic that treat syphilitic 11-year-olds.”
It is a story that is hopelessly unoriginal: it always starts with poverty and parents who are not able to take care of their children. Such parents are then lied to by a neighbor, or someone whom, they think, they can can trust and who tells them about great opportunities for jobs and education in Calcutta. What parents would reject such an opportunity for their children?
““But as soon as we arrived in Calcutta I knew something was wrong,” she says. “I didn’t know what a brothel was, but I could see the house she took me to was a bad house, where the women wore small clothes and lots of bad men were coming in and out.” The neighbour was handed 50,000 takka – around £500 – for Sufia, and then she told her to do what she was told and disappeared.”
And as simply as that, a young girl, usually inexperienced, becomes a sex slave servicing at least 10 men per day. As soon as they become able, the girls are made to “breed” so that their daughters will be sex slaves as well. Sufia is among the lucky ones: she escaped and returned home but she cannot tell her family what has happened to her. So she lied. Why, because that is another pattern: what happens to girls, like Beauty, when they do tell:
“Sitting in another hut, I find Beauty, a 34-year-old woman. When I tell her I want her to talk about her life, she offers a big, perplexed smile. “My brother-in-law sold me to the Mashi here when I was 13,” she explains. “He took me away one day and brought me here. When I arrived the Mashi whipped me and told me I could never leave this brothel. I was devastated. I hated it. I kept thinking about my family, my mother, and crying all the time. But the Mashi just whipped me all the time and told me I had to work.”
She found a fragment of happiness when she was 19. One of the men who came regularly to the brothel said he had fallen in love with her – and proposed marriage. He paid to take her away, back to her village to see her mother and sister. It had been Beauty’s dream: “I thought I was going back to the good life.”
But her family rejected her. They had heard she had become a prostitute – her brother-in-law said she chose it – so her sister “tortured me”, she says, calling her names and jeering and making the village shun her. Then, after a while, her husband tired of her too – and sold her back to the brothel once more. (…) So here she is. She knows “I can never have a husband or a house.” She will always be shunned, by everyone.”
Hari also investigates the international aspect of the slave trade. Is it easy to get girls and women from Bangladesh into India? Where are the local and border officials? It is not that easy. Hari reports stories of traffickers going after local officials who try to stop the trade, sometime violently.
““My brother, Abdu Saleq, was our elected council member here until three years ago,” he explains. His career ended abruptly when he caught red-handed a trafficker who was trying to take a 25-year-old woman over to India: “He thought it was his duty to stop them. He thought selling women was wrong.” The freed woman called her father, who came tearfully to collect her. Two nights later, the traffickers turned up at Abdu’s house. They dragged him from his bed by his hair, took him out into the street, and hacked his body to pieces with an axe as he howled.”
Traffickers, of course, bribe the police, so they’re no help in fighting the traffic. It is villagers who try to fight back that risk to be arrested and brought up on trumped-up charges.
Those are rural areas, but in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, there is a ready-made pool of potential slaves: the 300,000 or so street children, a lot of them a runaways and they know all too well what can happen to them, as Hari gotto hang out and interview a group of them:
“But there is an ever greater fear: the traffickers. The only moment when Mohammed betrays emotion is when he remembers a little girl called Muni, who was his friend. One day in June last year, when she was nine-and-a-half, an old man approached and told her she could have a brilliant job if she came with him. She refused, remembering the rumours that spread among the children about what really happened if you went with these men. He snatched her anyway. The other kids tried to tell the police, but they were just chased away. Her body was found, raped and strangled, three days later. Mohammed is convinced it was because she refused to be fooled by the traffickers’ tales, and refused to just be taken to a brothel: she fought back.”
As always, in such stories, and fortunately lest we despair of humanity, there are always those who fight back, in this case, Ishtiaque Ahmed, who created Aparajeyo (Undefeated), an anti-trafficking NGO:
“They run schools on the streets and shelters for the abused children, and they pay for an army of kids who have been rescued from prostitution to fan out across the city teaching other kids about how to thwart the traffickers.”
They also have shelters for rescued children, especially those who have been raped. There, they receive counseling. But Aparajeyo’s main strategy is to approach children on the streets, and give them toys and materials to teach how to read and write and protect themselves from traffickers.
“The children gather on bright blue mats in the corner of the terminal, excited and gleeful and able to ignore the stench of stagnant water because it has filled their nostrils for so long. They chant the alphabet and practice drawing and vie for the attention of their teacher, waving their hands and laughing. Iman, an eight-year-old, is sitting cross-legged, drawing a frog. He was, he explains, born here in the bus terminal: its walls are the walls of his reality. He lives with his mother by the toilets.”
More creatively, Aparajeyo has created a bank for street children: the Children’s Development Bank. The idea is that street children earn money through different activities, begging, small trade, but the money they make is often taken away from them, by pimps and other adults. What was needed then, was a structure to protect the children’s savings and allow children to be come investors and entrepreneurs themselves. The goal is not only to protect the children’s money but also to encourage them to save for the future rather than spend the money on drugs, for instance (no child on drugs is allowed to join the bank). The savings are then returned to the children in the form of micro-loans (based on the model of Grameen Bank). The children also participated in drafting the constitution and rules of the bank which operates as a cooperative more than just a private business.
And then, there are the brothel children:
“In the brothels, Aparajeyo has decided to face down all the nuclear-strength cultural taboos of ultra-conservative Bangladesh, and turn around the lives of the brothel-babies. Until the organisation arrived in 2002, the children of the Jamalpur brothel were forbidden from setting foot in a school. They were spat at in the street if they stepped out of their mothers’ iron-prisons. Illiterate, uneducated and prey to traffickers, most ended up becoming prostitutes themselves, with rape cascading down the generations.
Standing outside the brothel, scrubbed and smiling, the children tell me how Aparajeyo fought – using the full force of the law – to get them enrolled into the city’s schools. They provided extra support and tuition – ensuring the top three academic places in the city went to brothel kids, busting the notion among the schools that these kids were “backward”. The children now live in safe shelters near the brothel, and visit their delighted mothers as often as they like.”
The contrasting report of Johann Hari and the successes of Aparajeyo reveal that the situation is fairly bleak: trafficking in human beings is a thriving business in the global context, and not just in Southeast Asia. However, there are solutions for whoever cares enough and is creative enough to generate and implement them. The Global South is not short on ideas, it is short on means and resources to set intelligence and creativity in motion. But Aparajeyo confirms what Kevin Bales has been saying all along: it is possible to eliminate slavery and trafficking in our lifetime: it’s a matter of global political will and local ingenuity.