Dr. Manjeet Pardesi listened in horror as the young woman related her story. Neela had recently come to his home for children and pregnant women in Rourkela because she had heard it was a place where unwed mothers and their babies would be taken care of without abuse or judgment. The twenty-three year old was pregnant with her landlord's baby and didn't know what to do. There was no one to help her.
Neela had been caring for her eight year old brother and ten year old sister in their remote village in Jharkhand state, just north of Orissa, since their parents died several years earlier. Dire financial circumstances caused the small family to owe money to the landlord, who intimidated and coerced the girl into a physical relationship while the young siblings were sent into bonded labor in a rock quarry to pay off the debt. An outreach worker brought Neela to the home for delivery.
"The physical intimacy was not done due to love but due to fear," Dr. Pardesi wrote me in an email. "In other words, you can term this as rape."
While this seemed obvious, it was a brave and somewhat controversial statement for Dr. Pardesi to make. Such physical and sexual violence against Dalits, once considered the "untouchables," is widespread and rarely considered abuse or even a crime at all. In an extensive investigation of caste-based discrimination conducted in 2006, Human Rights Watch found that rape of Dalit women by landlords like what Neela endured is all too common. Dalit victims of rape face significant obstacles when attempting to report the crime to police or to bring a case before the courts. Perpetrators are rarely charged or punished, and their victims are usually the ones ostracized from the community so much so that rape survivors are often considered unmarriageable.
"Caste is very much the root of the problem," said Dr. Pardesi. "The government gives them certain privileges, but due to acute poverty and caste dogma these things happen. The people who are Dalits are at the receiving end of exploitation."
He began bombarding Neela's landlord with constant communication on behalf of her brother and sister. "Initially he was reluctant to part with the children," reported Dr. Pardesi, "until he was informed that the matter would be turned over to the police."
At that point the landlord finally agreed to return the children from bonded servitude in exchange for the money owed him. Dr. Pardesi arranged to collect the children from Calcutta, where they had been put into labor, and bring them back to live at the home with their sister. He paid the price of their debt: Twenty-five U.S. dollars.
Neela's young brother and sister were freed from their life of bondage, but for most such children freedom never comes.
One out of four children reported missing in India are never found. The strong link between missing persons and slavery indicates an immediate need to find and rescue children who have been reported missing. People trafficking is the fastest growing illegal trade in the world, second only to arms. With an estimated revenue of forty-two billion dollars it is so lucrative that many drug dealers are changing their cargo to human beings.
India represents forty percent of the world's human trafficking. In 2007 the South Asia Centre for Missing and Exploited Persons was formed precisely for this reason. "Tracing missing children and women across South Asia before they are exploited is emerging as a key focus area in the efforts to prevent human slavery," wrote Ashley Varghese, Legal Counsel for the organization, in a letter to me.
Pratham, a nonprofit organization that aims to give every child an education by taking schools into the slums and workplaces, has been at the forefront of the fight against child labor. In an interview with me, Farida Lambay of Pratham acknowledged that sometimes children have little choice but to work due to economic reasons; in those cases, when employment is stopped, then rehabilitation and a safety net must be provided to ensure that families and children have the ability to sustain themselves.
But she contended that the financial necessity of child labor as a whole is vastly overstated. "When these children work, the economic situation of most families does not improve at all. We must look at why children are really working." She outlined the major factors Pratham identified as perpetuating child labor: Lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of role models and lack of family or other parental support.
"The unemployment in this country is high," Ms. Lambay continued. "So why are we employing children? Why aren't their parents in these jobs instead?" She paused, and then answered her own question. "Because the children, they can be hired and exploited much more cheaply. In India we must come to a place where child labor is not acceptable."
The 2006 Human Rights Watch investigation in India concluded that caste-based discrimination is at the heart of bonded labor and is hugely intertwined with child exploitation. The caste system sustains the mechanisms by which bonded labor thrives, through the centuries-old expectations of free or vastly underpaid work, discrimination and violence against Dalits, and the extreme marginalization that prevents them from accessing resources available to other members of society.
The HRW report stated that these children were forced to dip their hands into boiling water to make the silk thread, handle dead silkworms and breathe fumes that made them ill, and worked in cramped, damp rooms. They did not attend school and were often beaten by their employers or burned with hot tongs if they fell asleep.
When I read this, I had to close the report and set it aside. I felt sick to my stomach. It seemed more than I could bear to think about; but at the same time, I couldn't bear not to. My mind reeled at how people could do this to other people especially defenseless children. The work of another journalist, Philip Gourevitch, popped into my mind. In his brilliant book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families about the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Gourevitch wrote of his fascination with the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real. The way that a thing, even as it was happening that very moment in the world around us, could be so horrific that we could still only imagine it, our minds refusing to accept it as reality.
I understood exactly what he meant. In a way, it was far easier to let the vastness of these atrocities slip past my mind that didn't want to accept them as possible, that became too easily overwhelmed and despairing at the thoughts. But I knew that to do that would be, for me, an unforgivable act. I did know. Now I could only decide if I chose instead to look away. And if I did that, if everyone did that, who would be left stand up for these children?
Gourevitch similarly examined his own pain and difficulty at spending so much time steeped in the genocide. "The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda's stories," he concluded, "is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it."