The rising middle-class demand for domestic workers is fuelling the trade in child trafficking in India. In impoverished and remote villages, it becomes too common of a story where children are reported missing on the way home, to school, or to the market. With India’s growing economy, increasing families with their newfound wealth and status are looking for workers to take on daily cooking and cleaning chores. It would be considered lucky if children trafficked into the trade are paid fairly for their labour and fed regularly, but this is not the case for many. Many slave children are denied basic access to food, water, clothing, and sanitary practices. Furthermore, workers are bought for a price far below the national minimum wage level and are often resold to other households or brothels bringing commission to their seller.
Many missing children reports go uninvestigated, or worse, are not filed on paper. As a result, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of how many children go missing every year in India. According to a report in 2017 by India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, 242,987 children disappeared since 2012. But other sources, such as TrackChild, a government database, quote a staggering figure of 237,040 missing children between 2012 and 2014 alone. Further contesting numbers, Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer for Save the Childhood, says the figure may well be as high as 500,000 a year.
Why do so many children, particularly young girls, go missing? There are four aspects that help enable the growing trafficking figures in my opinion: lack of girls’ education, lack of police resources, lack of strong deterrent legislature, and lack of social awareness and mobilization.
On the first notion of lack of girls’ education, this can be traced back to the roots of a long embedded culture of gender discrimination in India where women are socially confined to domestic roles in maintaining household duties and reproduction. Disadvantaged girls out of school are more easily targeted by fake labour recruiters and vulnerable to kidnappings. Domestic work offers can sound attractive to an impoverished child who can barely afford daily food and water – bad work still appears as a better alternative to a life in destitution. One statistic from Safe City in 2015 revealed that 3.7 million girls were out of school, where especially in rural areas girls receive an average of fewer than four years of education. Poverty stricken and uneducated, young girls are likely to fall victim to traffickers posing as placement agencies. Also, girls who stay at home may be seen as a burden on the family’s already low income, resulting in parents selling the girl. The government should aim to increase accessibility of social welfare and free education to remote areas, as well as launch campaigns to help educate families on the importance of education in breaking the poverty cycle and future promises of a higher standard of living and income for their children.
Lack of police resources is a serious obstacle to pursuing effective investigations into finding missing children. For one, a report is required to open up an investigation, and many impoverished families cannot afford to visit the police station to file a case. The police force is experiencing its own struggles with limited resources to carry out duty tasks, making them ever more inaccessible and unhelpful. Despite the rampant cases of trafficked children, the Indian police force lacks resources to open investigations, and even if they can open one, lack time and manpower to effectively sustain one. According to the New York Times, several police stations do not have a telephone and have to provide their own car fuel. Police officers are also less incentivized to take missing child cases as their performance is evaluated based on the number of successful cases. Given their limited resources, the chances of solving such cases are extremely low. Furthermore, parents may be reluctant to report missing children due to their own history of physical or sexual abuse. Abhijit Banerjee argues that some parents deliberately sell their children or let unwanted daughters wander into busy marketplaces. Last year, the High Court in New Delhi reprimanded the local police for failing to recover more missing children – only 37% of the 26,761 children filed missing in New Delhi alone over the past five years have been traced with success. The court also commented on the lack of transparency on, and awareness of, the police’s special operation steps on tracing missing children. Furthermore, despite the police having access to TrackChild, a government database with searchable photos of children formally missing, the police only filed First Information Reports in only 40% of cases between 2012 and 2014. There needs to be a push to toughen law enforcement by not only allocating a higher budget to police forces, but also increasing transparency of operations and providing necessary knowledge and tools to more effectively and efficiently catch traffickers within the local police forces and also wider inter-state police collaborations.
Not only are there insufficiencies in the executive branch, but also the legislative branch in enforcing stricter laws against domestic child trafficking. Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) strictly prohibits slavery and trafficking, enforcing penalties ranging from seven years to life imprisonment. Section 370 also criminalizes government officials’ and police officers’ involvement in enabling human trafficking. However, despite pressure from the 2000 UN TIP Protocol, the section does not define the prostitution of children in the absence of coercive means as an act of human trafficking. Furthermore, existing laws such as the Child Labor Act, the Juvenile Justice Act, and other IPC provisions prohibit forced labour; however, penalties are not strict enough, ranging from fines to short prison sentences. A lot of these laws don’t directly tackle loopholes and targets that enable trafficking of children. According to Mr. Rishi Kant, there are around 25,000 fake placement agencies operating in India where recruiting agents approach poor families and entice them with money and promises of job and education opportunities for their children. As Delhi’s Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal explains, “it is very easy to get a registration certificate from the Delhi government.” All that is required is an online registration form, with no need for any proof of license or training. Because there is no placement agency regulation act in India, traffickers can easily set up a shop, or several shops, and receive a hefty commission by selling a child several times to different households or brothels. Experts also argue that there need to be stricter laws that focus on punishing the customers who buy children for labour. As chair professor on human trafficking at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai said, “We can focus on the traffickers, the transporters, … but the fact remains that at the center of it all is the customer.” He adds that prosecutions of customers are rare in India, and unless authorities take a ‘customer-centric’ approach to choking the demand for child labour, trafficking will not stop.
Last, but not least, there needs to be a larger public push against the trafficking of children for domestic servitude. In recent years, public opinion has increased their voice and mobilized against rape and sexual assault, but not as much for missing children. Social advocacy groups argue that it does not concern many Indians as they view these children as not their own. There needs to be a stronger inculcation of the value of children among Indian society. By increasing awareness of the human rights violations and treatments of domestic child servants, it is hoped that societal pressure will curb families’ demand for child workers. Awareness especially needs to reach the remote rural areas and villages where most of the abducting and recruiting happen, promoting vigilance in their respective communities.