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Despite growing wealth in India, child prostitution still on the rise

NEW DELHI — Like many Indian girls, Suchitra was taught her future profession by her mother. In her village, there was only one path. Even before she had reached puberty, Suchitra had learned different sexual positions and other ways to please a customer.

NEW DELHI — Like many Indian girls, Suchitra was taught her future profession by her mother. In her village, there was only one path. Even before she had reached puberty, Suchitra had learned different sexual positions and other ways to please a customer.

At age 14, a man she had never seen before showed up one day at the family’s house near Bharatpur in northern India. At her mother’s urging, Suchitra got into his car. Six hours later, they reached their destination. It was a brothel in New Delhi’s red-light district. She had been sent into sexual servitude.

“I always knew that this would be my life,” said Suchitra, sitting in her wardrobe-sized room and wearing a low-cut green top and jeans. “I can never forget what I’ve done, but it is the only way for my family to earn a living.”

Suchitra, now 20, is from one of hundreds of villages in India where centuries-old tradition dictates that most girls enter into a life of prostitution.

Rising wealth has not reduced the trafficking of girls for sex in the world’s second-most populous nation: The number of child prostitutes is growing and the average recruitment age has dropped to between nine and 12, according to the Delhi-based National Human Rights Commission.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented growth in prostitution,” said Mr K K Mukherjee, a sociologist who has studied sex workers for more than three decades and has written government reports on the subject.

“It is being driven by rising levels of income but also by a change in sexual attitudes and the increasing migration of women to cities.”

Districts such as Bharatpur, where half of the women are illiterate, are breeding grounds for the country’s US$4 billion (S$4.98 billion) sex trafficking industry.

India has three million sex workers, of whom 1.2 million are below the age of 18, according to a government estimate, and the South Asian nation traffics more women for sex than any other country.

The growth of underage prostitution in a country whose gross domestic product has risen on average about 8 per cent annually in the past decade is testimony to the treatment of women and the power of caste in the world’s biggest democracy.

Whole families from some castes at the bottom rungs of the country’s social hierarchy rely on income from their daughters’ sex work, with fathers and brothers often acting as pimps. The girls often have their virginity auctioned to the highest bidder once they reach puberty.

Suchitra, who is of the Bedia caste, shows how the caste-based system determines access to occupations and social status.

Rooted in religion, the millennia-old structure marginalises certain groups, imprisoning women in a cycle of isolation and abuse.

Many female members of the Bedia community, which numbers about 20,000, say they are treated like outcasts. They cannot marry if they have worked as a prostitute, are refused service in shops, are called “whores” and are greeted with disinterest by the police when one of them is raped.

“Caste remains a defining feature for most Indians,” said Dr Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi. “These attitudes bring an enormous cost in terms of a lack of social mobility and lost economic opportunities.”

Government officials and activists working to break the born-into-prostitution custom say that high levels of illiteracy and caste-based prejudice make it difficult for the women to earn a living any other way.

“It is going to be very difficult to stop,” said Mr Niraj Pawan, the top government official in Bharatpur, who is struggling to curb the practice among the Bedia community.

“How do you convince these illiterate girls, with no skills, facing enormous family pressure to be a prostitute to take a job where they will earn a tenth of their current pay?”

Bedia women say they can earn between 1,000 and 2,000 rupees (S$20 and S$40) a day working as prostitutes. That compares with the country’s average daily income of 188 rupees.

Sex trafficking rings prey on the poor and illiterate among India’s almost 600 million female population.

The traffickers often operate with impunity due to poor police enforcement, compliant officials and ingrained traditions of caste, said Dr Siddharth Kara, a fellow with the Carr Centre Programme on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Stiffer financial penalties for running a brothel and successfully prosecuting sex traffickers would reduce the number of women drawn into prostitution, said Dr Kara.

The current penalty for operating a brothel is between one and three years in jail and a fine of as much as 2,000 rupees.

Ultimately, the key to extracting women from a world of sexual slavery is schooling, said Ms Soumya Pratheek, who works for Apne Aap, a Delhi-based group that campaigns against sex trafficking in India.

Some 73 per cent of children aged 11 in schools in the state of Rajasthan are unable to subtract and 79 per cent cannot recognise numbers between 10 and 99, according to the 2012 Annual Status of Education Report.

“The most important tool that we have is education,” said Ms Pratheek.

“Girls must go to school. They need to know that their body is theirs. It is not something that other people can trade in.” Bloomberg

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