Something was not quite right about the little group that climbed onto the bus.
On their hour-and-a-half bus ride home to Udaipur, India, from the project office in a small village where they had spent that late-July day, Joseph Mathew and his colleague, Hemlata Verma, spotted the man and six children right away. The pair quickly realized they were likely looking at victims of child trafficking. Mathew, as coordinator for ChildFund India’s anti-trafficking project Udaipur, lived and breathed the issue every day and knew the signs.
The man appeared middle-aged, and the children looked mostly 12 to 16 years, so it was unlikely they were his own.
The children sat separately, and an older boy, about 17, kept an eye on them. Mathew and Verma knew that traffickers often engaged older children to serve as leaders.
All of them carried bags containing a few pieces of clothing, often a sign of children migrating for work.
“I asked my colleague to start chit-chatting with the kids who were sitting next to her,” says Mathew. “The idea was to know who the children were and where they were going.”
Verma managed only brief conversations with the children before the older boy stopped them, but she heard enough to confirm what she and Mathew feared. Says Mathew, “We came to know that they were being trafficked to Gujarat to work in child labor."
Child trafficking has long been a problem between the neighboring states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, in western India. Most trafficked children are put to work in Gujarat’s vast Bt cotton fields — as many as 100,000 per year, as a 2008 study conducted by ChildFund found — because of the belief that cross-pollination of the genetically modified plants requires small hands, and because child labor is cheap. Living under inhuman conditions and paid much less than they are led to expect, children work as much as 12 hours a day, often carrying huge loads of dangerous pesticides and suffering abuse. About 45,000 girls work these fields. Up to 5 percent end up becoming sex workers.
The ChildFund study also brought to light the fact that no national organization was working exclusively on the issue of trafficking in persons in the area. It was a given that local authorities were ill-equipped to prevent and respond to trafficking; in fact, even the police would often turn a blind eye to traffickers at checkpoints in exchange for cash.
ChildFund began working to strengthen community-based child protection systems to prevent and respond to child trafficking in Rajasthan. Beginning in 2009, with funding from the United States Department of State, ChildFund’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) project trained dozens of personnel from local organizations, created task forces, raised awareness in communities and trained government officials and local authorities.
ChildFund’s work to fight child trafficking in the area now continues under a new name — Prevention of Child Trafficking, Rajasthan — and with new funding from BMZ Germany. As in any ChildFund effort, the best interest of children remains a running theme throughout all events and materials.
On that hot evening on the road toward Udaipur, ChildFund’s anti-child trafficking efforts made themselves felt in the lives of six children on the bus.
“Immediately, we tried to contact every possible concerned official who could help rescue the children,” says Mathew, but no one picked up — it was evening. Finally, the Additional Superintendent of Police responded to a text message and talked Mathew and Verma through what would happen next.
Soon, two police officers boarded the bus, others surrounded it, and the man was arrested. The local Child Welfare Committee arrived on the scene as well.
“This is a great example of combined effort by a civil society group and law enforcement agencies,” says Dola Mohapatra, ChildFund India’s national director. “It’s also a testimony to the level of awareness and alertness we have been able to create in the area about trafficking of children.”
The raised awareness is changing the local system. Project team members report a shift in the dialogue they share with police, from hesitant to proactive. Lawyers are more sensitized and contribute voluntarily to the fight against child trafficking.
And six children spent the night safely in a shelter while their trafficker languished in a cell between interrogations.
The problem of child trafficking continues in the area, but it’s not nearly as easy for the culprits as it used to be.