Thursday, June 2, 2011

She’s 10 and May Be Sold to a Brothel

M. is an ebullient girl, age 10, who ranks near the top of her fourth-grade class and dreams of being a doctor. Yet she, like all of India, is at a turning point, and it looks as if her family may instead sell her to a brothel.

Her mother is a prostitute here in Kolkata, the city better known to the world as Calcutta. Ruchira Gupta, who runs an organization called Apne Aap that fights human trafficking, estimates that 90 percent of the daughters of Indian prostitutes end up in the sex trade as well. And M. has the extra burden that she belongs to a subcaste whose girls are often expected to become prostitutes.

M. seemed poised to escape this fate with the help of one of my heroes, Urmi Basu, a social worker who in 2000 started the New Light shelter program for prostitutes and their children.

M., with her winning personality and keen mind, began to bloom with the help of New Light. Both her parents are illiterate, but she learned English and earned excellent grades in an English-language school for middle-class children outside the red-light district. I’m concealing her identity to protect her from gibes from schoolmates.

Unfortunately, brains and personality aren’t always enough, and India is the center of the 21st-century slave trade. This country almost certainly has the largest number of human-trafficking victims in the world today.

If M. is sold to a brothel, she will have no defense against H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases. Decisions about using a condom are made by the customer or the brothel owner, not by the girl. In one brothel I slipped into to conduct some interviews, there was not a single condom available.

The police make more effort to help girls like M. than they did a few years ago, and in a column a week ago I described a police raid on a brothel and the rescue of girls inside ages 5, 10 and 15. Yet the police force’s progress is uneven, with one prostitute explaining why brothels hide young girls from police: “Because when the police come through, they confiscate the very young girls, and then the brothel owners have to pay a bribe to get the girls back from the police.”

Now at age 10, M. is running out of time. Her parents have pulled her out of her school in Kolkata and are sending her back to their native village hundreds of miles to the west.

“Our family situation is such that we have to take her back,” said her mother. She is vague about the reasons, except to say that the girl’s grandfather insists upon it. M. has a scholarship through New Light to study free in Kolkata, so the cost of M.’s education is not a factor.

This leaves Basu and me with an extremely bad feeling, fearing that once she is back in the village and away from her protectors at the New Light shelter, her grandfather could sell her to a trafficker for transfer to a red-light district anywhere in India.

When we ask M. what she thinks, she looks down and says in a small voice that she worries as well. But she says she will never give up: “I will not stop my studies,” she told me firmly.

Then again, she is unlikely to be consulted. And traffickers offer families hundreds of dollars for a pretty girl.

I’m here in Kolkata with America Ferrera, the actress from “Ugly Betty,” to film a television documentary. Ferrera fell in love with M., and M. with Ferrera; they spent much of their time giggling together.

“When I look at her, I see all the 10-year-old girls I’ve ever known,” Ferrera said. “She’s bubbly, silly, and optimistic. It would be heartbreaking to lose such a beautiful spirit to a life of violence and prostitution.”

Ferrera, Basu and I jammed into M.’s one-room shack to beg her parents to let her stay in school in Kolkata. “I’m pleading with you,” Basu said. “Let your daughter have this opportunity!”

We got nowhere. Her parents have bought M. a train ticket back to the village in a week’s time.

I don’t know how this will end up. Ferrera said she will be writing letters to M. in hopes that this may make her family nervous about a sale. And Basu is counseling M. on what to do if she is sold to a trafficker. We just don’t know what else to do.

What I do know is that it is surreal that these scenes are unfolding in the 21st century. The peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the 1780s, when just under 80,000 slaves a year were transported from Africa to the New World.

These days, Unicef estimates that 1.8 million children a year enter the commercial sex trade. Multiply M. by 1.8 million, and you understand the need for a new abolitionist movement.

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF for International Herald Tribune

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