Tarannum (name changed) has many cut marks on her wrist, scars that constantly remind her of the several years she spent in a brothel where she was sexually exploited countless times.
"Three years of hell," she recalls.
Daughter of a fisherman from a cyclone prone area of the Sundarbans, 13-year-old Tarannum was trafficked by a local shopkeeper in 2012. He tricked her into believing that he would get her a job as a domestic worker with a good salary.
Once in Delhi, he sold her to a woman at a brothel. After three years, she was rescued by a local NGO with the help of police. But even after she returned home, the trauma of the past haunted her and she turned suicidal, trying to slit her wrist multiple times.
Slowly recuperating now, Tarannum hopes no one ever goes through what she did.
Another trafficking survivor Reema (name changed) does not remember her parents. She only faintly recalls her father. At a very young age, a brothel owner had trafficked her and forced her into prostitution.
She was finally rescued from a brothel in Sonagachi, West Bengal, in 2013 at the age of 21 after enduring many years of sexual abuse in different cities across the country.
Both Tarannum and Reema are among thousands of children and women who get trafficked in different parts of the country every year.
This year with the outbreak of the coronavirus, activists and researchers are worried that an exponential increase in human trafficking cases will take place in the coming times.
Roop Sen, anti-trafficking researcher and gender rights activist, said it's "undeniable" that those on the margins of society are vulnerable to trafficking.
"The reasons are manifold like debt trap, closing down of factories, restaurants and retail shops, probable rise in demand of young girls and women in red light areas," he said.
— SAFE SPHERE (@safe_sphere) July 30, 2020
As per the US State Department's 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report 2020, though the Government of India does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore India remained on Tier 2, the report said.
The efforts taken by the country included convicting traffickers and completing a high-profile investigation into a case that involved officials complicit in trafficking at a government-funded shelter home in Bihar, convicting 19 individuals in the case, including three state officials; an influential former legislator was among the 12 that received life sentences. The government also filed First Information Reports (FIRs) against other government funded shelter homes in Bihar that allegedly abused residents, including trafficking victims. For the first time, the Madras High Court reversed an acquittal in a bonded labor case.
Worsening socio-economic inequalities in the wake of current global health crisis are putting more people at risk of #HumanTrafficking— ActionAid India (@ActionAidIndia) July 30, 2020
This #WorldDayAgainstTraffickingInPersons, we strengthen our resolve to protect the vulnerable & to continue our efforts to #EndHumanTrafficking! pic.twitter.com/4CdKgZj36l
The central government added investigation of inter-state and transnational trafficking cases to the mandate of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the country’s premier investigative body, which began investigating inter-state trafficking. The government continued to work on its draft anti-trafficking bill and committed to devoting funding to expand its police anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs) to all 732 districts.
However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not make serious or sustained efforts to address its consistently large trafficking problem, the report said.
According to Sen, among the steps the government can take to combat human trafficking are cash transfer support to more vulnerable families and communities, cash transfer to children and adolescents attending schools and creating safe migration services.
He further suggested that anti-human trafficking units can gather intelligence on trafficking in hotspots.
Sambhu Nanda, an activist from West Bengal who coordinates an NGO-network called Partners for Anti-Trafficking claimed that multiple reports of missing and trafficking of girls have been received in the past two months.
"Even when parents reported the cases to local police stations, the officers pleaded helpless since all their energies were focussed on COVID prevention," he said.
Pompi Banerjee, a member of NGO Sanjog, said the vulnerabilities due to the lockdown and the pandemic are essentially the susceptibilities that have existed for a long time, but at a scale where they were not highly visible issues.
"The pandemic, the lockdown, and in parts of our country devastating natural calamities (floods and cyclones) are now accentuating these vulnerabilities and have brought them out in the open, visible enough that they can no longer be ignored by the law enforcement and politicians," Banerjee said.
N Rammohan, anti-trafficking activist from Andhra Pradesh who runs NGO HELP, claimed that many sex workers, who are the earning members for their families especially for their children, have been driven to take loans under exorbitant interests during the lockdown period.
"The local loan sharks who are not registered under the Money Lenders' Act, especially operating in red light areas, are poaching women with adolescent girls and encouraging them to take loans under high interest. When they would be unable to repay their loans, the sex workers would be forced to prostitute their daughters," he said.