Two weeks ago, I travelled to Chandauli for the first time, a two-hour drive from Varanasi. For the past year, I’ve been following the NGO, Aangan’s work there with vanvasis, a Scheduled Caste group who live off the forest. I had a mental picture of what I was about to see – deeply malnourished children with too-large heads and protruding bellies, their parents collecting wood and betel leaves from the forest to eke out a living.
To reach the village, we got off the main road, onto a dirt track, now almost indistinguishable after heavy rain. From there, it was a one-kilometre walk to the village, wading through knee high water to reach the first clutch of houses. The village is in a valley between hills, and transportation is virtually non-existent. In other circumstances, purely as a tourist, the setting would have lifted my spirits – mud houses with low, thatched roofs, a few buffaloes, streams and an air of quiet, bucolic.
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. The rudimentary school and malnourished children didn’t surprise me. Nor did the men and women sitting outside their homes all day, no claim on their time, no work to tend to. As I spoke to a group of women from the community, it began to hit home.
There were very few adolescent girls or boys to be seen.
The women said many had left – some had been married, others left to work in warehouses and factories, lured by the promise of a mobile phone or a pair of jeans. Some had returned from brutal, exploitative working conditions in warehouses in cities to which they were taken, others had never come home. Still others had left to work in neighbouring villages as agricultural labourers and might return after the season, or would be left there at the behest of the landlord to continue working.
Did parents worry about sending their children away? Was that even a choice, or a luxury? Would I choose differently in that position? Probably not.
As I sat there, my mind drifted to Naina, a girl who is part of a weekly group session I attended at a state-run institution for lost, abandoned and harmed children in Mumbai.
Naina is 16, and one of the quietest girls in the group. For the first month, she never made eye contact, looking down and drawing patterns with her finger on the floor. In any activity, she’d quietly refuse to participate, wanting to listen to the conversation but physically moving to the fringe of the group, sitting just outside the circle.
A few weeks after we started the group sessions, she came, up wanting to talk, to know when she could go home to her mother who lives in a village in West Bengal.
Naina had left home at the age of 10 to work as domestic help in a house in Gurgaon. An agent from her village had helped her get there and she said it was a good few years she spent. The woman she worked for was kind to her, giving her food and buying her clothes on Diwali. She lived there for five years, before returning home to her mother for a few months for Pujo. Did she get a chance to study, I asked. No, she responded, but whatever she cooked for the household, she also got to eat.
Her next ‘posting’ was at a house in Surat. Here, she met an auto rickshaw driver who promised to marry her. She agreed to leave for Mumbai with him, got on a train and arrived at the station. She was then put in a taxi on her own, the driver trying to take her somewhere to sell her. When she resisted, he left her on the street and she was brought to the institution for girls.
Naina said she wanted to go home and be with her mother for Durga Pooja, but after that, she would go wherever she could find work. What was there to do at home, after all? Her father had died and her mother was ill. Staying back was not an option. She had to leave, go to the next house, and hope for a kind woman.
As I sat there, I could picture other girls and boys like Naina in Chandauli, and understand deep in my bones, the absence of choice, of any sort of agency.
The 2015 Trafficking in Persons report has been published by the US State Department. It says that 90% of India’s trafficking problem is internal. From what I’ve seen from bastis or hotspot communities we work in, I’d agree. It is internal, and informal and often much too close to home.
Six kilometres away from the first village I visited in Chandauli, is another. This one is alongside a road. Women here have started coming together to talk about trafficking, about how to keep children safe. They’re a group of volunteer adult child protection workers, part of Aangan’s PACT program (Parents and Children Against Trafficking and Harm). They’re coming together to share their own experiences – of sons and daughters who were lured or sent away, talking about why that’s dangerous. They’re meeting the local school principal to enlist support for their children to go to school where they were previously bullied and harassed because of their caste. They’re urging parents to be cautious, to collect details of where their children are going, numbers, addresses.
Yesterday, July 30, was World Day Against Trafficking, and unwittingly, the subject was feeling close at hand. It’s only six kilometres away, but there’s an air of action in this village, of supportive adults, watching out for and protecting children they see around them. They’re working to stand up for children. To keep safe.
*The names of children have been changed to protect their identity
The author, Deepika Khatri, is the Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator at Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm