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Amoli: The search for India’s missing girls

A new documentary aims to raise awareness about India's invisible yet thriving child sex trafficking industry

A still from ‘Amoli’.
A still from ‘Amoli’.

Sitting in the corner of a dingy, dimly lit room, her face hidden in the shadows, a young woman calmly narrates the litany of atrocities she has suffered over the course of her short life. Neelam (her name in the documentary) was 14 when her aunt pushed her into the sex trade. She was injected with hormones to make her look older. She was hit, cut with blades, had her private parts burnt with cigarettes. This went on for years till she was rescued. But that wasn’t the end of her nightmare. Rejected by her family, she lives in a shelter and has to take regular medication to counter the effects of the hormone injections. “He was like an animal," she tells the camera, talking about her assaulter. Neelam was sold to one man as a personal “sex slave". He’s currently out on bail. “It’s like he took pleasure from my pain."

Neelam’s harrowing account is just one of many highlighted in Amoli—Priceless, a new documentary on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in India which releases on 7 May. Directed by National Award winners Jasmine and Avinash Roy and produced by Culture Machine, the 30-minute docudrama stitches together interviews, independent reportage and found footage to give us a snapshot of this clandestine—and very lucrative—industry. At the heart of the documentary is the search for Amoli (her name in the documentary), a young girl missing from Siliguri, West Bengal. “During our research, someone told us of this girl who had gone missing from the tea garden," says Avinash. “But when we went looking for her, we realized that it isn’t just one or two families with missing children. Someone would point us to one house, the next person would point us to another. "

Amoli opens with grainy archival footage of a police raid on a brothel. The hand-held camera shakes as policemen pull out three girls crammed inside a tiny crawl space that looks too small to fit even one. The girls cower in fear till a kind policewoman reassures them that they’re not going to be arrested, that they’re safe. Every year, thousands of girls are rescued in raids like this one, usually conducted by the police with help from anti-trafficking NGOs and activists. But even once they’ve been rescued, these girls face a long, hard road to rehabilitation.

As a first step, the girls are taken to a government-run shelter home, where they undergo counselling to help deal with the emotional and psychological trauma they have undergone. After counselling and the completion of court procedures, the shelter tries to return the girls to their families, a process called “repatriation". But many of the girls were trafficked by family members, so they can’t be sent back to the same environment. Others find that their families no longer want them. “We met girls who have been in the shelter home for 10-12 years," says Avinash. “One girl tried to go back home five times, but each time she was rejected by her family."

(from left) Directors Jasmine Roy and Avinash Roy, and creative head Akanksha Seda at a studio in Mumbai. Photo: Devendra/Mint

Owing to the covert nature of the human trafficking industry, it’s hard to quantify the scale of the problem. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, of the 23,117 human trafficking victims rescued in 2016, 14,183 (60%) were minors. The global slavery index claims that there are 18 million Indians in modern slavery, though it doesn’t say how many of them are involved in forced sex work or are children. Other organizations have their own estimates.

“According to government figures, around two-three million women and children are in sex slavery in India, of which 45% are children," says Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of anti-trafficking organization Prajwala, which has been working to end human trafficking and sex slavery for over two decades. “And the problem is getting worse. I’ve seen a progressive decrease in the age of children being trafficked, it’s not very rare to see a five-year-old victim now."

Most of the victims tend to come from poor and marginalized communities in the Indian hinterland, with rural West Bengal being one of the biggest “source areas". Some of the girls are sold by their own families. Others are kidnapped, or lured away from homes by the promise of a job in the big city. In many cases, the trafficker—or “agent"—is known to the family. “In a lot of places, the girl is missing and the agent lives next door," says Avinash. “He’s a respected person in the village because he’s the one providing jobs."

“But this isn’t just happening in remote rural areas, it’s happening in cities as well," adds Jasmine. Neelam, for example, is from Indore. And while poverty and the lure of jobs is what makes most of these children vulnerable to traffickers, there are other factors as well. “In many cases, girls are blackmailed into it."

On paper, India has very stringent laws against child trafficking and the sexual abuse of children. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, is comprehensive in scope and prescribes strict punishment—including the death penalty—for offenders. But while the number of cases being filed under the Act continues to grow, conviction rates are low. “The big challenge is the invisibility of the trade," says Jasmine.

The film-makers hope that Amoli will increase awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and to that end they’re making the movie available for free on YouTube and Facebook. They’re also dubbing the film in six languages, alongside Hindi. The end game is to create a social and legal environment that has zero tolerance not just for traffickers, but also for those who create a demand for such exploitation. “We’re not naive enough to think a film can change the country overnight," says Akanksha Seda, creative head of the documentary. “But we hope this film can be the first domino that starts a whole tidal wave."

And what about Amoli, the girl whose absence casts its shadow over all aspects of the film? For her, like for millions of other children across the country, there is no happy ending, at least not yet. “Nobody knows where she is, how she is," says Jasmine. “We just don’t know."

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