Sugarcane cutters’ children at high risk, targeted through proxy marriages
Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, stricken by frequent droughts and limited opportunities to make a living, has emerged as a trafficking hotspot.
Young women from households involved in the harvesting of sugarcane have become easy prey for traffickers; such workers often migrate out of the area in search of work.
Some government officials DTE spoke to say drought and erratic rainfall have forced people to abandon their farms and migrate for work, leaving their children vulnerable to proxy marriages and trafficking.
According to National Crime Records Bureau reports, 28,316 women went missing from Maharashtra in 2016. This number rose to 29,279 in 2017 and 33,964 in 2018.
The number of missing women rose to 38,506 in 2019. Despite the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, around 32,000 women went missing from Maharashtra.
Sugarcane cutters in the region migrate to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, as well as other districts of western Maharashtra.
Manisha Tokle, an activist working with the Women Sugarcane Cutters Labour Association, said that farming is becoming less profitable due to climate change and water scarcity. Even farmers with 7-10 acres of land are opting to cut sugarcane.
They work in the fields from October to March for as low as Rs 200 per day. Some leave their children behind with their grandparents or relatives but return to find their girls sold off.
The Labour Association is an NGO based in Maharshtra that is working in proximity to Makam (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch) — a forum to secure due recognition and rights of women farmers. It estimates around 1.38 million labourers solely depend on sugarcane cutting in the 197 mills in Maharashtra.
Tokle said the families are destitute. “If the workers leave their children back home, they are trafficked. If they take the children with them, they get molested,” she said.
She recounted a case where a family would leave their daughter Anju (name changed) at home when they were out in the fields. “A boy from a nomadic community befriended her and convinced her to elope with him,” she said.
The villagers helped the parents locate his house in Ahmed Nagar the next day. “They discovered the boy’s mother was a pimp. The girl had been sold off to a brothel in the same town,” she said.
Activists and the Women and Child Development department officials built pressure on the police to find the girl. She was rescued from a brothel and sent to a shelter. She had been drugged and raped several times in the two days.
Trafficking in the guise of marriage is becoming very common these days, said Ramesh Joshi, a social activist formerly working with the Vipula foundation in Osmanabad. The families want to get girls married off to save them from being exploited.
“Sometimes girls as young as 12 or 13 are married off to 30 to 35-year-old men, who sell them to brothels in big cities,” he said.
In another case, a couple who cut sugarcane wanted to get their youngest daughter, 12-year-old Radha (name changed), married to protect her from harassment. The couple was leaving for Andhra Pradesh for six months of work.
“Locals in Beed reported a 12-year-old girl wearing mangalsutra and sindoor in the house of a woman who was involved in commercial sex work,” Tokle said.
When Tokle and the police went to rescue the girl, the woman told them that Radha was her “sworn brother’s wife”.
During the counselling by WCD, the girl said her parents had married her off to a 23-year-old man for Rs 1 lakh. After the wedding, he left her with his “sworn sister”.
The girl was reunited with her parents after they promised the Child Welfare Committee in writing that they would not try to get her married again.
Varsha Patil, the chairperson of WCD, Latur, told Down to Earth that drought and erratic rain have forced people to abandon their farms and work as labourers in the region and outside.
“Natural calamities and climate change directly affect women and children. Most trafficking victims in shelters belong to low-income families. The girls are forced into prostitution on the pretext of work, the promise of a better life, or false marriages,” she said,
Patil said the number of trafficking cases had increased over the years and rescuing the girls was always challenging.
“There has been a rise in cases where girls aged 12-17 years go missing,” said an assistant police inspector in Latur who did not wish to be named.
The assistant police inspector, formerly stationed in Beed, said the girls are sold and resold from one pimp to another. Girls from small villages may end up in areas like Rajasthan or Delhi. This makes it very difficult to trace them.
Vipula Foundation, an NGO working for women empowerment, mapped the source destinations of trafficking areas in Marathwada. It found that source areas have good rail connectivity to traffic teenage girls to bigger cities, where language would be a barrier.
“We investigated 215 villages in Latur, Beed, Osmanabad and adjoining regions. Traffickers have agents and pimps everywhere and their footing is becoming stronger, as poverty increases after every drought,” Joshi added.
The anti-human trafficking department of Latur began functioning in October 2021, after the government of Maharashtra commissioned 45 such units 2021. The department, however, is having a hard time tracking down trafficking as the modus operandi of the traffickers keeps changing.
“Agents and pimps have now started commercial sex exploitation of women in their own homes to escape raids, making rescue work even more difficult,” said an official from the department, wishing to stay anonymous.
The official said that on paper, they had no cases of trafficking, just missing girls and boys. “It is difficult to differentiate between the causes of trafficking and children who go away by choice,” he added.
“Environment and climate change is one of the reasons for poverty in the region. Because of this, poor people have to resort to child marriages and girls become soft targets. Lack of education because of poverty makes matters worse,” the assistant police inspector said.
Teenaged Rekha (name changed) is another trafficking survivor who had to move to Latur after the local stream in her village dried up. Her parents took up menial jobs and she started working as a house help for a woman.
Her employer forced Rekha to spend more time with a local man. The man promised her a better life in Pune and eloped with her in October 2019. A month later, he found that the police were looking for him. He beat up Rekha and left her battered and exploited on the streets.
Sujata Mane, a noted child rights activist and member of Latur CWC, says that the girl would never have been found had the CWC not pressured the police to file the missing report. “It was a miracle that she could reach her sister’s home, where she was rescued,” she said.
“Once trafficked, many girls don’t find their way back home,” Mane added.
Maya is another woman staying in Latur’s rescue centre. Her parents had migrated to Latur from Killari village in 1993, after the earthquake destroyed everything for them.
At age 19, she took to commercial sex work after her father died and her mother became too frail to work.
“I became the sole earner of the family and as I never went to school after Class IV, I was qualified for nothing,” she said. The 27-year-old was rescued in September 2021.
With her only form of livelihood taken away, Maya now faces an uncertain future.
Joshi said traffickers monitor which villages were most affected by drought after every monsoon and then find such vulnerable families to traffic their daughters.
Many times, people don’t even register missing cases out of fear or because of a lack of co-operation by the police, he added.
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