Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal with girls who were rescued from a hotel in New Delhi on Aug. 1, 2018. The commission said it rescued 39 Nepali victims of human trafficking. (Photo by IANS)
When Meenu was just 13, she was taken by her mother to a local agent in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh who was asked to help the young girl find a job to tide-over the poverty-stricken family
She was the eldest of six children and their alcoholic father was no longer employed.
The agent paid some money to the family in advance and then took her to the capital, New Delhi.
She was handed over to another agent who sold her to an affluent household in the city at double the price.
Meenu (not her real name) worked for three years in the house for more than 18 hours a day doing menial jobs.
She said she was sexually harassed by her employer and often beaten for petty reasons.
A year ago, her boss beat her so severely that she was hospitalized.
Someone at the hospital tipped-off a non-government organization (NGO) and Meenu was rescued from the hospital itself.
With the help of the NGO, Meenu filed complaints with the police against both the agent and her employer for human trafficking and sexual abuse.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are some eight million trafficking victims living in India, but the figure can vary according to definitions that are applied.
For example, according to Indian government statistics, 8,132 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2016. Nonetheless, even the official figures indicated that the problem is getting worse as this constituted a 20 percent increase on 2015.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by threats or force for the purpose of exploitation. The definition includes the provision of money or benefits to obtain the consent of a person to exploit somebody under their control.
Trafficking occurs when and where conditions are ripe for exploitation, according to research conducted by academics from the Department of Social Work at the University of Delhi, and poverty is only one of many factors.
The research shows that social pressures on victims to migrate, a lack of local employment and educational opportunities and unstable family structures can also play a role.
"Traffickers are becoming smarter as they know how to target both the most vulnerable and the least visible people," according to a report of the study.
Sometimes, even without the involvement of an outside agent, circumstances can push people into situations so unfair that they are equivalent to human trafficking.
What happened to Dishada Bano, a 15-year-old Muslim girl, is a case in point.
Bano, from the north-eastern Indian state of West Bengal, was married-off by her mother to a 50-year-old man in New Delhi. Now a mother of three girls, she says she was regularly forced to have sex with her husband.
"He was blind in one eye and couldn't get a match for himself," Bano told ucanews.com. "Therefore, he decided to buy one."
Bano says she was tortured, beaten and ridiculed for not producing a boy, compelling her to run away with her daughters. She now works as a housemaid and lives in a hut on the outskirts of Delhi.
Caritas-India in 2017 launched the 'Swaraksha' (self-defence) anti-human trafficking program near the Indo-Nepal border where most cases are reported.
Assistant director Father Jolly Puthenpura said that since then the Catholic social services organization has initiated an anti-trafficking program in 75 villages in the north-eastern Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
"The Church is present in every corner of the north-east, thus with this huge network of parishes and human strength we can play a big role in reducing Human trafficking," Father Puthenpura told ucanews.com.
He said Caritas India, through collaborative interventions, has so far rescued 141 people, repatriated 69 and rehabilitated 72 others.
"A definite change can be seen today because of our awareness programs among women and children as they are better informed and are aware of human trafficking," he said.
Communities are alerted to the importance of not being deceived by traffickers, the priest added.
Christian leaders active in this field stress that awareness building needs to be carried out in tandem with poverty reduction.
According to official government figures, nearly a quarter of India's 1.2 billion people are poor or very poor.