Sex Trafficking in India
Published: October 16, 2013
Although a brutal gang rape in Delhi last December grabbed national headlines and caused a public outcry, sex trafficking in India has not provoked the same degree of outrage. It is hard to know how many women and girls are trafficked in India, but the United States State Department, the United Nations and India’s Human Rights Commission have all identified India as a major hub in the international sex trade, a global phenomenon that may involve upwards of 27 million people.
In March, in the wake of the rape, India’s Parliament passed a bill amending laws concerning sexual violence and making sex trafficking a criminal offense. But the gap between enactment and enforcement remains unacceptably wide.
Parliament acted in response to the recommendations of a judicial committee led by the late Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma. In addition to urging tougher laws protecting women and children from abuse, the Verma Report recommended stiffer penalties for sex-related crimes as well as swifter justice for the perpetrators.
India’s own sex trade is booming. The New York Times recently reported on widespread human trafficking of young girls in the state of Jharkhand and on the trafficking of impoverished girls into India from neighboring Nepal. Girls are also exported from India and other South Asian countries to the Gulf and Southeast Asia.
Persistent poverty is a major factor. Many vulnerable women and girls are lured by promises of employment, and some parents are desperate enough to sell their daughters to traffickers. Rapid urbanization and the migration of large numbers of men into India’s growing cities creates a market for commercial sex, as does a gender imbalance resulting from sex-selective abortion practices that has created a generation of young men who have little hope of finding female partners. India’s affluence is also a factor, luring European women into India’s sex trade. The caste system compounds the problem. Victims of sex trafficking disproportionately come from disadvantaged segments of Indian society.
Amending India’s laws is a good step, but a law is only as good as its enforcement. Trafficking is profitable and corruption is widespread. It is all too easy for traffickers to buy off police and other law-enforcement agents. The police must face strong disciplinary consequences for turning a blind eye, and those who commit sex crimes must know that they risk speedy prosecution and stiff sentences.
Meanwhile, India’s government should address historic patterns of discrimination and focus increased resources on educating disadvantaged girls. Until attitudes in India toward women change and poor children gain the skills they need to take control of their futures, sex trafficking and the damage it inflicts will continue.