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Child Trafficking, Early Marriage, and Commercial Sexual Exploitation

By Vipla Foundation

Child trafficking and child marriages have far-reaching negative impacts on the lives of girls, not only violating their rights but also leaving lasting consequences on various aspects of their development. Despite the existence of international conventions, regional agreements, and national legislation, coupled with the collective efforts of various organisations, child trafficking and forced or early marriage continues to be a pressing concern, particularly in developing countries. Some studies have identified a link between child marriage and modern slavery, especially where there the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent to enter the marriage, if the child is subjected to control – particularly through abuse and threats - and is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores or labour outside the marital home, and/or engage in non-consensual sexual relations, and if the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage. In such instances, children coerced into these marriages are compelled to engage in activities reminiscent of those experienced by victims of sex and labour trafficking.

Vipla Foundation has been fighting human trafficking for sexual exploitation and gender-based violence (GBV) in India since 2000. The Foundation empowers women and girls from vulnerable communities, especially those who have experienced sexual violence, including sex trafficking. The organisation provides opportunities for education, employability, entrepreneurship, safe return, repatriation, and access to justice. Vipla Foundation has supported over 5,000 survivors of trafficking and violence, understanding that many of them are trapped in cycles of poverty and various forms of GBV, which heighten their vulnerability to severe sexual violence and trafficking.

The state of Maharashtra, India, a significant source, transit, and destination for sex trafficking, has witnessed a considerable number of victims trafficked both domestically and internationally. Recognising this, a dedicated Special Court has been established to address cases arising from the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956 (ITPA), for the city of Mumbai.

For over a decade, Vipla Foundation has collaborated with the Special Court in Mumbai, offering support by conducting victim inquiries based on orders issued under section 17(2) of the ITPA. In September 2023, Vipla Foundation published a report analysing primary data from 163 victim inquiries conducted between 2019 and 2022. These inquiries served to comprehend the victim's background, provide a safe space, and offer an opportunity for rehabilitation. Victims are rescued by the police under the ITPA, following which the process of rehabilitation commences.

The dataset comprising 163 victim inquiries offers valuable insights into the circumstances and vulnerabilities that lead to the entrapment of victims in commercial sexual exploitation. This data highlights critical factors contributing to vulnerability to trafficking:

  • Age: A significant proportion of rescued women (51%) falls within the age range of 18 to 29 years at the time of rescue, with around 40% in the 30–39-year-old age bracket.

  • Education: Out of the 163 victims, 36% had never received formal education, while 57% had received some education ranging from primary to higher secondary levels. Poor educational status may be a result of child and early marriages, as 97% of the victims had not progressed beyond secondary education.

  • Marital Status: Surprisingly, 47% of sex trafficking victims were married women, and 29% were separated or divorced. Alarmingly, 76% of the victims were married after dropping out of school at a young age, indicating an increased vulnerability to trafficking.

  • Dependent Children: Seventy percent of victims had one or more dependent children, underscoring the critical role of financial need in their vulnerability and prolonged entrapment.

When all the above factors are considered together, it becomes evident that the majority of women rescued from commercial sexual exploitation and participating in the study have experienced multiple vulnerabilities and forms of exploitation, with early marriage emerging as a prominent issue. This analysis also underscores the intricate interplay of factors contributing to child trafficking and early marriage, highlighting the need for a comprehensive approach to protect and empower vulnerable girls and women.

It is essential for sector actors to recognize that interventions to prevent trafficking at the source should focus on the reduction of vulnerabilities, including social, economic, educational disparities, poor access to healthcare, and other systemic factors that contribute to exploitation. Merely raising awareness among vulnerable communities is not enough, as vulnerability is often rooted in intergenerational poverty and gender discrimination, and requires targeted interventions. Instead, there is a need to improve access to education, healthcare, and livelihood opportunities. The approach necessitates the development of local advocacy efforts aimed at preventing school dropouts, child marriage, and enhancing various other indicators that affect the lives of girls residing in vulnerable communities.

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