At 14 it appeared that Priti’s world would no longer be just an alphabet — G. Indeed, that’s how a large number of habitations is denoted in one of the world’s harshest terrains, where poverty is abject. Barely 50 km south of a bustling Kolkata, the G Plot is one of the numerous tiny islands that constitute the 10,000 sq km of estuarine marsh and mangroves known to the world as the Sunderbans.
Like other residents of the G Plot, for Priti’s parents — daily wage earners — getting their children out into the ‘civilised’ towns and cities, with proper names and histories, had been a long-cherished dream.
Poverty curiously attracts dream-sellers. In little Priti’s case, they were her not-so-distant relatives. The dream on offer was simple — marry Priti off to Kolkata. What if she was just 14 and why should it matter that the proposed groom was a stranger? He was well-to-do, so Priti would have a ‘decent’ life. For her parents, that was enough. So, things moved fast.
Thanks to some garrulous neighbours, the word about Priti’s imminent ‘bright future’ reached a local NGO Angikar’s office. A rat was smelt, hurried investigations carried out, the local police and panchayat leaders got involved and a sinister design to traffic the little girl was stalled at the last minute. Priti’s world continues to be marked today by just an alphabet, but at least she is safe.
But thousands of girls across West Bengal may not be so fortunate. Child marriage and girl trafficking are rampant in the state’s vast rural tracts. Hailed as India’s ‘social oasis’ during 34 years of Left rule and now helmed by a woman chief minister, West Bengal, at least statistically, is most unsafe for women, registering the highest number of cases of gender violence, according to the National Crime Bureau Report 2012. The state also recorded about 52 per cent of cases of ‘selling girls for prostitution’ and 88 arrests in relation to child marriage —- the highest in the country, on both counts.
The UNICEF data for 2011 is equally shocking. In many districts every second girl is married off before they reach 18, with Murshidabad (61.04 per cent), Birbhum (58.03 per cent), Malda (56.07 per cent) and Purulia (54.03 per cent) being the worst off districts. West Bengal is among the worst five states in the country when it comes to child marriage. According to another survey, the total number of underage married girls — who also became mothers before the age of 15 — in Bengal, between 2007 and 2008 was 27,082 — the second highest in the country.
In my personal experience, in more than 50 per cent cases, child marriage is just a ploy for trafficking girls. The most vulnerable districts include Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Malda in the north, and North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas in the south. About 80 per cent of the victims are sold in various metros including Mumbai and Delhi.
Nine districts in West Bengal share porous borders with Bangladesh and Nepal, which explains the increased incidence of child trafficking. The other contributing factors are rural poverty and the social pressure to wed off girls early. Since most cases of trafficking go unreported, it makes rescue and prevention all the more difficult.
The scenario across India is no less grim. Rather than a complaint-based reactive role, state governments must be proactive in detecting, preventing and punishing perpetrators of child marriage and trafficking.
An appropriate policy framework between India and its neighbouring countries to check cross-border trafficking must be put in place. Fast track or specially designated courts for rescued children to ensure their rehabilitation must be instituted in right earnest. Finally, the society’s attitude towards the girl child needs to change to bring about an enduring impact. Otherwise, the little Pritis will disappear through the fault lines of progress.
The author is a social activist