8888677771 | Phoney love: In Sundarbans, a call, sweet nothings and a descent into sex trade | India News

That one phone call changed her life.

All of 17 and living in a small border village cut off from the Sundarbans by a narrow creek, a few sweet nothings murmured into the phone by the unknown caller is all it took to make the now 25-year-old to fall madly in love with him. A month later, the “love of her life” had sex-trafficked the naive teenager to Gujarat.

Though villages in West Bengal along the Bangladesh border have been notorious for sex trafficking for years, social workers and state police say that traffickers have changed their modus operandi of late. Instead of luring them with high-paying jobs, traffickers are now professing “love” and promising marriage over calls and social media to convince their victims — most of whom come from vulnerable backgrounds — to elope with them.

The inhabited part of the Sundarbans, spanning an area of approximately 3,500 sq km and spread across the districts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas, is dotted with villages where people have been struggling for survival for years because of the region’s challenging ecology. Besides the saline waters of the Bay of Bengal making agriculture and daily life difficult for the locals, it has also contributed to the high rates of sex trafficking here.

“There are no jobs here, so most adults work in cities. Their children, usually left behind with grandparents or relatives, are given phones to keep in touch with parents and to study online. The traffickers use these very phones to target young girls and women,” says Tania Sultan, a legal coordinator with Katakhali Empowerment & Youth Association (KEYA), a grassroots organisation that helps survivors of sex trafficking in villages of North 24 Parganas district, where the problem is particularly severe.

Sunderbans The inhabited part of the Sundarbans spans an area of approximately 3,500 sq km in India and is spread across the districts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

What has love got to do with it?

Social workers say traffickers use their extensive network to scout villages along the border for vulnerable targets.

“They also befriend their targets’ friends and relatives to get their numbers and information on them. Once connected on the phone, traffickers woo these girls/young women with promises of love, something their families fail to offer them,” says Soma Das, who heads KEYA.

Social workers say though cell phones are now common in rural India, most girls and women are unaware of social media safety. At times traffickers woo their targets for one to six months, before convincing them to elope with them.

Though sex trafficking using this new modus operandi has been happening in West Bengal since 2016 now, the numbers increased drastically post Covid-19, social workers told The Indian Express.

Between January 1 and September 30, in 73 villages of one block in the region, social workers recorded 35 cases of girls/women being trafficked for sex using this modus operandi. While data from other villages in the region was unavailable due to “lack of documentation”, social workers say the numbers “won’t be very different”.

Sunderbans Their sheltered upbringing, conservative views, poverty and cell phones have made it easier for traffickers to prey on vulnerable girls and young women. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

While sources in the state Criminal Investigation Department (CID) admit to the problem, they say it’s difficult to give an actual estimate of girls/women trafficked in the state using this specific modus operandi because “all reported cases are clubbed under the general umbrella of trafficking”.

National data on women and girls who went missing in 2019-2021, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in July, showed that West Bengal was second only to Madhya Pradesh in this problem: 1,56,905 women and 36,606 girls had gone missing in the state.

“We hear of six to seven cases every month in one block of the region alone,” says Sakila Khatun, a social worker with KEYA.

Laying the trap and reeling in the target

The sheltered upbringing of these girls and young women makes it easy to “trap” them, say social workers. Patriarchal values that are still pervasive — in part due to lack of education and poor socio-economic conditions in the villages of North 24 Parganas — have added to the problem.

“Most people here think that a girl is a burden and there is no point in giving her good food to eat or an education because she will just end up cooking for her in-laws,” says Das of KEYA. “These girls and women don’t have the smarts to question why a stranger wants to speak to them. They haven’t had opportunities to interact with confident men and are too young to know any better. Attention from these callers makes them feel flattered and they start to believe that the man actually loves them. Despite all warnings, they choose to trust these men.”

Conservative attitudes are also one of the reasons why the Hasnabad and Hingalganj belts in the state witness particularly high rates of child marriages. Often, when girls find out that their family is planning to marry them off, they run away with their trafficker.

Sunderbans One of the victims who was trafficked using the new modus operandi. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

“It’s common for girls to get married at 15-16 years. Every year, we get 10-15 cases of girls under 18 years being married off across Hasnabad panchayats. Unofficially, the numbers will be much higher,” says Khatun, adding that statistics for child marriages in this region are hard to find because families keep such marriages under wraps.

Khatun adds, “The biggest concern in these low-income families is the next meal, not the victims or their needs. Families frown at the thought of their daughters hanging out with friends after school or in a park. They prefer to get them married early instead. All this pressure makes these girls want to leave home to explore the world with the first person who is nice to them. It doesn’t matter if the men are several years older than them.”

Thanks to these conservative attitudes, social workers say, traffickers know exactly how to coax their victims into eloping.

An official with the state CID’s Anti Human Trafficking Unit explains, “Traffickers call 100 random numbers registered in West Bengal to find a prospective victim. Silver-tongued, they start conversations with the victim, slowly connecting through WhatsApp, getting added to her Facebook friends’ list and eventually switching exclusively to social media apps to woo her and convince her to run away with him.”

One such young woman to be “wooed” away in March from a village on the banks of the Ichamati was a 19-year-old. In the hopes of finding her child, her distraught single mother, 45, has been carrying photocopies of her daughter’s government-issued ID cards and a passport photo in a green bag since she went missing.

“She returned from school one day and said a man had promised her a job in Kazipara. I don’t even know where Kazipara is. I told her that we would discuss it after I returned from work, but she was gone when I got home,” says the mother, adding that she brought her child up without any support from her in-laws.

“I got her a smartphone when schools went online during Covid-19. She is naive and a good-looking girl. I told her that she was being duped, but she didn’t listen to me,” says the inconsolable mother, who works as a domestic help, adding that her daughter’s phone has been switched off since March.

Bikas, a social worker who has been helping the mother with her case, says, “This is a case of trafficking through a cell phone.”

Hidden ‘romance’ and secretive meetings

The state CID official adds, “Girls keep their romance cleverly hidden. The trafficker too never meets the victims in their village. Instead, they meet them somewhere else. Once the victim starts trusting them, they take them away during their third or fourth meeting.”

Police say the new modus operandi makes it nearly impossible for them to distinguish between a case of trafficking and genuine love.

“The trafficker and victims talk via apps like Messenger, but we cannot trace those calls or messages. Earlier, we could comb through a year’s worth of data from their social media accounts, but encrypted messages on apps make it tough,” says the CID official.

Sunderbans The edge of the Sundarbans forest in West Bengal. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

One of the only ways out of this mess, Khatun says, is to ensure that girls are taught to be wary of who they trust.

“They should be aware that they are choosing to trust a man they have spoken to a few times over the phone. We need to get these girls and young women to trust and confide in a community leader or a teacher or a friend because awareness programmes — where a group of people give lectures — aren’t really working.”

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Back in her village, wearing a purple batik dress with an orange odhna wrapped around her torso, the 25-year-old who was sex trafficked to Gujarat has been fighting for justice for seven years now. “I never miss a court hearing — even though I have to cross four rivers by boat, which takes four to five hours, and costs a lot (around Rs 300),” she says.

Her experiences have “toughened” her, she says, adding that she is no longer deceived by “empty compliments”.

She adds with a smile, “Though I don’t trust anyone anymore, I have not given up on the institution of marriage. Thanks to the case, I have learnt a little about the court system. If someone really wants to marry me, he will have to get the marriage registered in court first.”

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