A street lined with ceremonial religious items for sale. There were throngs of people here to visit the temple of the god Kali, others were here to solicit business in the sex trade. There was the despair of the elderly and others abandoned at the gates of the temple, there was the mercy of Mother Teresa’s home for the dying and destitute. Incense mixed with a stench wafting through the streets form the dirty and polluted river behind the shacks on the muddy banks to our left, a river that was black and filled with garbage, yet revered as a holy tributary of the Ganges. A river whose murky water is used for bathing and healing rituals.
This was a place of religious temples and run down brothels. Many years ago, the prostitution industry developed out of connection to the temple priests, but now, these little dark rooms, dirt floors, and tin roofs house many women and girls who have been trafficked. In India it is estimated that there are 63 million missing women. Many of these are children.
For a poor rural family in India survival is the main concern, and children can be a mixed blessing. It’s an unfortunate case of human economics. If they have a male child, perhaps that child can help, can get an education, can get legitimate work, can find a bride and require a substantial dowry and make their life easier.
But suppose they have a female child. Everything is different. That child becomes a burden to the family, with the spectre of a potential dowry payment for marriage that they may not be able to afford, or which could financially ruin them. It is in this situation where human traffickers prey. Often, they bring promises of legitimate work in the city, work and opportunity that would never have been imagined for this young girl. Girls are sold into the hands of these people, sometimes to work a legitimate job for a month or two before being taken advantage of and forced into the sex industry where they have no means of escape. For other families, things are so dire that they willingly offer their daughters into trafficking because it is the only way to extract some sort of value from what appears to be the enormous burden of having a female child.
“The solution is to reform the entire system.”
Approximately 44,000 children are reported missing in India each year, but the number is likely far higher than that, as most families would rather avoid the shame of admitting their daughter is gone, and the authorities aren’t likely keen to file official missing persons files for impossible cases. So where will these girls end up? The city of Kolkata is located near the borders and in close proximity to many different South Asian countries making it the perfect gateway for trafficking. And as I walked along that Kolkata street, I learned that many girls will end up here, work here for their entire lives, and die here.
It would seem an insurmountable problem in a city region of over 14 million people. But over the last decade, due to the hard work of non-government organizations (NGOs) and other partners, the number of minors found in these high risk areas has decreased steadily. In fact, the area I was visiting was shown to have virtually no underage presence in the brothels. Rescues of girls had been done over years and years, investigations performed, ringleaders arrested and jailed, and today many girls are free from this exploitation who would never have known freedom otherwise.
But that is only part of the story. As technology has developed, the need for old fashioned brick and mortar brothels in red light districts has waned, and the industry is moving underground. Social media and messaging apps are now where business is conducted and the brothels are now legitimate looking apartments and hotels. This has created an enormous challenge to eradicating the exploitation of underage girls in the city.
The solution is to reform the entire system. From local police, to government care agencies, to law implementation, to prosecutors and judges, every bit of the system needs to be turned into an anti-exploitation machine. It sounds ambitious, but it is the only way to end the slavery of these girls once and for all. No amount of NGOs and other agencies will be able to keep up by rescuing girls one at a time. Without the system being the primary driver of change, prosecution, punishment, and recovery, this atrocity will not be ended in our lifetime.
“This is the work of empowering others to make the difference and giving away the credit.”
Some NGOs and agencies we partner with are working hard on this front. They are working diligently to ensure that rehabilitation is effective. They are working with local police stations to train them in how to enforce the law and conduct investigations and rescues that will hold up in court. They are working with prosecutors and judges to make sure that perpetrators are brought to full justice. One of the fortunate ironies in India is that the country actually has good laws protecting these girls from such crimes, but often the system simply doesn’t have the capacity to carry out and enforce those laws. This is slowly changing.
As we walked along the cracked concrete street in Kolkata that phone call came. There was an excitement in the air because the call had come from a local police precinct. They were one of the groups who had received training to this end from a local NGO. They were calling to say that they were about to perform their own rescue operation. An operation they had investigated and now were executing themselves in tandem with other government agencies. They wanted to inform the NGO and ask for advice. That night lives were changed and I got a glimpse of a system that could be changed.
But don’t be mistaken; this is hard work. This is not the glamorous work of rescues and headlines, the kind of thing which is easy to report to supporters and donors. This is the work of empowering others to make the difference and giving away the credit. But it is this incredibly ambitious and humble mission that aligns so perfectly with Village Church. Why can’t an entire system be reformed to end the exploitation and sexual slavery of girls in Kolkata? Why can’t this happen in our lifetime? In order to defeat an evil that seems insurmountable, in order to do something improbable, we need to atempt the impossible.
As Christians we believe that one day, all slaves will be set free, that every tear will be wiped from every eye, that all injustice will be reversed, and that all perpetrators will be held to account. But just maybe, if we stay diligent, and are willing to do the impossible, we will see that day in Kolkata within our lifetime.