'I can't go home': death threats terrify India's sex trafficking survivors

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A teenager, who was kidnapped and sold into prostitution in India for six years, has fled her West Bengal home because her trafficker threatened to kill her, in a case illustrating a growing problem for justice campaigners.

The girl said the trafficker’s family flew down from Mumbai to her village in September, just days after she was reunited with her parents and siblings, demanding that she tell the court she became a sex worker voluntarily.

“They said they’ll make me disappear,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from her grandmother’s house in Kolkata, a few hours away from her family’s village in South 24 Parganas district.

“They want me to forget that I was abducted on my way to a relative’s house, sold, beaten and abused for six years. I said no and now I can’t go home.”

Campaigners say many survivors live in constant fear as traffickers intimidate them, forcing them to withdraw cases, flee their homes and drop out of school.

“In villages, we have seen how brazenly traffickers are threatening girls, beating up family members and ensuring cases against them are not pursued,” said Subhasree Raptan, coordinator of a non profit that rehabilitates survivors.

She said that half a dozen families have asked the West Bengal charity, Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK), for protection in the last two months.

Of an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, according to campaigners. But fewer than two in five trafficking cases ends in a conviction.

The girl’s home district, South 24 Parganas, has seen a steady rise in crime against women, with police recording a jump of more than 80 percent in the number of kidnaps and abductions between 2010 and 2013.

Raptan said another survivor in the district has been threatened with rape and murder by her traffickers, who have also lodged two false counter cases against her family.

“After much counseling, the girl had rejoined school,” she said. “But after her family was attacked, she has discontinued with her schooling in fear of more attacks.”

Victim support systems are not effective, campaigners say, leaving survivors to fight lonely battles for justice.

“The pressure on victims is extreme,” said P M Nair, a human trafficking expert and professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“Prosecutions rely on their testimony and there is no emphasis on any other forensic evidence collected from brothels during raids. Traffickers use that fact to intimidate and get away.”