Everyday over 400 women and children go missing in India. Most of them remain untraced.
Rupa Devi and her two minor daughters have been missing from their native village in Katihar district of Bihar for over 26 months now. Her brother-in-law Gangalal, accompanied by some neighbours, rushed to the Barari Police Station to lodge a First Information Report.The police, however, dismissed their case and refused to file an FIR. “The police officer in charge told us these kinds of incidents are a daily occurrence. What could they be expected to do about it,” Gaganlal reveals. Akhil, a neighbour who was present at the station adds “The police said these kinds of occurrences have become fashionable these days. What does one say to that?” Unfortunately, this is not just a shocking aberration, but the norm — the Supreme Court, in Lalita Kumari versus Government of Uttar Pradesh and Others, took cognizance of the fact that a large number of serious offences are not registered by the police.
“The police said these kinds of occurrences have become fashionable these days. What does one say to that?”
India has the highest number of people living under slavery according to the third Global Slavery Index. 90% human trafficking in India happens between the states, mostly from the poorer eastern states to richer states in the north and west of the country. Katihar district, located near the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh border has emerged as one of the hotspots for trafficking in women and children. Endemic poverty and the flooding of Kosi river in this area, compel people to migrate for jobs. In such situations, girl children, often seen as ‘burdens’ on the family, become very vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers promising lucrative marriage deals, often persuade families to sell their daughters. But these sham marriages are just fronts for forced labour and sexual exploitation, with the women and children completely cut off from their community and with no means of finding their way back.
Rupa Devi had been widowed for over a year. With limited earning opportunities for women in the rural milieu, women like Rupa Devi are easy prey for human traffickers. Community Correspondent Navita Devi, who documented this story interviewed neighbours and family members. In one of the interviews, Manohar, a neighbour reveals that they had subsequently found out that Rupa Devi was taken away by a woman from a neighbouring village, who was a known trafficker. Talking to Navita, some neighbours further revealed that this trafficker tracks down impoverished, lonely women and promises them a new life with a second marriage. Marriage continues to be presented as the only choice, the be all and end all of their lives, to many women in this country and many fall for it.
When Rupa Devi’s husband died in an accident, the sole source of steady income disappeared in the family. She would manage daily wage labour, but opportunities are severely limited in an impoverished area like Katihar, which sees mass migration in search of work. At the time when she went missing, Rupa Devi owed 300 rupees to the neighbourhood grocery store. With two young daughters to take care of, she was clearly struggling to make ends meet. Did she believe the woman’s promise of a marriage and a better future? Or did she go with the trafficker knowing what awaited her, but preferring that opportunity over starvation and grinding poverty? We may never know. Rupa Devi’s in-laws do not want to pursue the case.
“What can I do? Can you help me take some action? The family is not even ready to come with me to the station.”
Navita felt really disheartened when she realised the family had no interest in pursuing the case. Surely, with enough pressure, the police could be persuaded to begin investigation. On call with me from Katihar, Navita’s voice is full of despair and frustration “What can I do? Can you help me take some action? The family is not even ready to come with me to the station.” It is not unusual for families to stop looking for their female relatives once trafficking — associated with sexual exploitation–is suspected. The reason is stigma. In a report analysing the experience of survivors of trafficking, Sanjog, an organisation that works on rehabilitation of trafficking survivors, concluded that most survivors who came back home faced discrimination, ridicule, and negative stereotyping despite them having been victims. The family and community often actively played a part in labeling the survivor a ‘fallen woman’ and in isolating her. The family which takes back such a morally ‘lapsed’ woman, itself is seen as worthy of ostracism by the community. No wonder then, that Rupa Devi’s family has washed its hand of her.
Just looking at cases of missing children in 2016, Katihar ranks the highest with 81 missing children of whom 51 are underage girls. But the irony is that these figures only reflect the number of cases registered by the police. There might be other hundreds of such incidents. Given that the police, as this case reveals, refuses to register cases with impunity, the situation does not seem very hopeful. According to official figures, 135,356 women and 61,444 children remain untraced across the country. Caught between systemic apathy and neglect, familial indifference and societal stigma, they are destined, like Rupa Devi and her daughters, to remain faceless figures in statistics.
Article by Madhura Chakraborty