It’s time to reclaim the lost innocence of the Sunderbans’ children

Climate disasters, Covid lockdown, lead to increase in child trafficking and marriage

“We had many cases where we tracked and rescued girls from Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. We also found out that there were boys in these villages, who were trapping these girls and trafficking them to the northern India,” said Rishi Kant, co-founder of Shakti Vahini, an organization that rescues women from gender-based violence.

Kant said cases of child trafficking and child marriage skyrocketed in the Sunderbans region following the pandemic. He was also involved in the formulation of the Swayangsiddha project launched in Jalpaiguri and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal in 2016. It aimed to empower children to protect themselves in case of violation of their rights. By the end of the program’s second year, approximately 1,000 girls had been rescued and 3,000 perpetrators had been arrested.

According to Kant, the Covid pandemic, followed by cyclonic storms Amphan and Yaas which hit West Bengal, had a scarring impact on families living in the remote islands of the Sunderbans. “The means of subsistence have completely disappeared. All the children who were in school could no longer go to school. Due to the three consecutive waves of the pandemic, schools in West Bengal have been closed and reopened periodically three times between 2020 and 2021.

A United Nations report revealed that the Amphan caused the displacement of 2.4 million people across India, mostly from West Bengal and Odisha. “The teachers didn’t understand the trauma the kids were facing,” Kant says, adding that “a lot of these kids fell into the dark web trap.”

“Under lockdown, children were using Facebook and making friends with foreigners, especially from North and South India. Many children fell prey to these dark net criminal elements. These men offered to marry these girls,” Kant recalled, adding that the girls were only 12 to 14 years old and that “more than 300 cases of child marriage have been reported in this region.”

According to Kant, in the inner areas of the islands of the Sunderbans and the 24 Northern and Southern Parganas, there was a disconnect with the teachers. “Children started contacting strangers on the internet because they were living in isolation. Due to natural disasters, Covid and the loss of livelihoods, families were struggling and young girls sought friendships with strangers. It was the trap. »

Kant said the men who approach these young girls via the Internet are between 18 and 25 years old. Many girls, barely of age, have also been threatened to publish their private photos on the Internet.

Tapashi Mondal, a Sunderbans-based campaigner, said while many school boys had phones bought by their parents, girls should “borrow the phones when they need them”. Mondal has been engaged in social work in the Sunderbans since 2011 and started by organizing books and stationery for schoolchildren. She is now deeply immersed in running workshops and camps for teenage boys and girls at Piyali in the Sunderbans. She was awarded the Kutchina Krritika Fellowship in 2018, an honor given to women from disadvantaged sections who lead social change.

Mondal said that now all children have access to mobile phones and “in many cases even schools are equipping their students with phones for online lessons”. Mondal told the Citizen that she had even “encountered cases where children threatened to commit suicide if they did not buy a phone”. She said there has been a negative impact as these children have uncontrolled access to the internet.

Elaborating on the adverse effects of internet access in these regions, Kant added that he observed that many parents did not understand the seriousness of the problem, as there was a disconnection from civil society. Because of the lockdown, people couldn’t leave their homes and “the only thing that was available was the internet. These young girls were looking for mental peace online, not understanding that it was actually a trap.

“They are teenage girls, their sexuality is developing and the internet is bringing them closer to sexual exposure. Once mining begins, it never stops. It continues until the girl says something,” Kant said. He recalls a case where a young girl was asked by a stranger on the internet who she had befriended about when she would take her bath. Once the girl told him the time, he video called her when she was in the bathroom and filmed her. He then threatened her, saying he would put the music video on the internet if she didn’t pay him the money.

Due to the economic disasters that have hit families in the Sunderbans, families have tried to push their teenage girls, aged 14-15, into marriage. “Wherever there is human trafficking, child marriages increase. When there is no work, the parents themselves push the girls to get married,” Kant explains. These marriages were performed quickly and without background checks on the boys and their families. “A lot of these girls reported that they were having problems in their marriages,” Kant added.

Mondal, who has spent years working exclusively with people in the Sunderbans, added that poverty also leads to domestic violence. “These weather disasters have had a profound impact on children, as most families here are daily wage earners. So when all the work stopped during Covid, these families came under a lot of financial pressure.

This is sure to have an impact on the children in the household, Mondal said, explaining that financial pressure has triggered a lot of unrest in families “and girls are the main victims”. She noted that sexism is still deeply rooted in Piyali society. The parents think that if they marry off the girl “and get it over with,” their financial problems will ease.

Many girls have been married off to much older men because of this mentality. “It is evident if you see the number of students in schools now,” Mondal explained, “the number of children attending school has dropped drastically in Champahati and Piyali. Previously, 40 to 45 students were enrolled , now only seven to ten turn up for exams. Boys dropped out to go to work, while girls were married off. She recalls that even after Cyclone Aila, the number of child marriages in Bali from the Sunderbans had skyrocketed.

According to Kant, education and awareness are the only ways to reverse this exploitation of children, “we clean the floor when the tap runs. It is crucial that school teachers take responsibility, panchayats and parents need to learn the importance of internet safety.

“Children certainly use phones to attend lessons, but outside of school hours, the phone poses problems for these children,” Mondal added.

“We failed,” Kant said, “I accept that we failed to protect our children in the Sunderbans. It is a failure of civil society. This is why our children are subjected to all kinds of violence.

Data released by Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, an NGO based in South 24 Parganas revealed that the number of child marriages increased from 68, recorded before the pandemic, to 159 cases after. The GGBK had undertaken repairs in more than 70 villages, after the Amphan hit West Bengal.

Kant also encountered several cases in Bengal where young girls were lured by men who made false claims of possession of land and property, “it is very easy in Bengal to fake these things”. He added that he had seen such cases in the Sunderbans, North and South 24 Parganas, Midnapore and other districts as well. “We have to reach the interior areas. We cannot expect to sit in Kolkata and educate these children via Zoom calls. We need to reach out to that last girl who may be a victim of abuse… Exploitation is happening as we speak,” he said, “it’s not just for the government to do it, it’s It is up to us, as civil society, to fight against this.

In December 2020, the National Human Rights Commission of India called on all states to set up 24-hour anti-trafficking hotlines, with a focus on railway stations, bus depots and remote villages. “The police department and the government of West Bengal were certainly trying to reach various schools through the Swayangsiddha initiative. But the campaign was not reaching everywhere. It was limited to schools in certain pockets. inland, down to the coastal areas of Hemnagar,” Kant said.

As a social worker and campaigner in the Sunderbans, Mondal has partnered with organizations and NGOs to run awareness camps. She helped, obtained rations and amenities for cyclone victims and created educational opportunities for children there. In October 2021, Mondal and his team built a library in the village of Piyali for students.

Mondal said he saw a significant shift in the mindset of Sunderbans youngsters: “I was fighting for them before, now I see them fighting for their own rights.”

She says there have been cases where young girls refused to marry because they weren’t yet of age, “they are threatened to go to the police if they are forced. In fact, cases of sexual harassment on the streets have also decreased! She recalled that some boys were also discriminated against because they were “effeminate” and stayed indoors out of shame. “But now they understand that it is a matter of shame for the people who discriminated against them and that they are fine as they are. These shifts in their mindsets are the real payoffs of our efforts,” Mondal told The Citizen.

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