Kanta, 36, is a distraught mother. A year ago, poverty compelled her to send her 14-year-old daughter from the safety of their home in Madhya Pradesh's Mandla district to Delhi, where her teenager was to work as a domestic aid.
Several months down the line, Kanta still has no news of her daughter. Repeated visits to the neighbor who had arranged for her daughter's placement, have been met with snubs and no information. Despite the fact that Kanta wants to travel to Delhi and make her own inquiries, she can't for want of money.
Unfortunately, Kanta is just one of the many mothers in the tribal dominated districts of Mandla, Balaghat and Dindori who wonder about the whereabouts of their daughters - sent off to towns such as Meerut, Agra, Nagpur and other metros to work as domestic help.
Madhya Pradesh is, in fact, believed to be fast emerging as the trafficking hub of the country, with thousands of girls having vanished from the tribal-dominated areas over the last five years. In
the absence of any avenue of employment other than farm labour, there is widespread poverty in these parts. Most families are compelled to send their daughters to alien cities in the company of people they neither know nor can fully trust.
As per the 2001 Census, Mandla district has 1,002 females per 1,000 males, while Balaghat has 1,022 females per 1,000 males. "Despite the government offering several schemes for tribals in this area, they do not get enough work due to corruption. Consequently, daughters are sent off to work and their families immediately get anywhere between Rs 1,200 to Rs 3,500 (US$1=Rs40). However, in most cases, the payments stop coming in after a few months," elaborates Naresh Vishwas, Coordinator of Nirman, a Mandla-based voluntary organisation.
It is believed that several gangs involved in trafficking of girls operate in these areas. According to a survey conducted by Nirman, around 600 girls from different villages have gone missing. "They went to cities for work but did not return even after several months. The efforts of their families to contact them have also gone in vain," says Vishwas.
In some instances, the police have registered cases. But the outcome has not been encouraging. A few arrests and rescues have, however, been made. Those rescued will live with the horrors of having been trafficked, such as Manisha Padhwar, 27, of village Bhadli of Bichiya police station. In 2001, Manisha was taken to Delhi on the pretext of getting a job as a domestic help but was sold and sent to a brothel in Kolkata. Rescued from the brothel, Manisha is now mentally disturbed and can only recall having been taken to Mumbai and Kolkata.
Other victims have also spoken of sexual exploitation. Ramia Bai, 23, of village Mawai complained that she had been sexually exploited in the name of employment. Ramia was taken to Agra by a middleman under the pretext of being given work as a housemaid. A few days into her new job, she was molested by the man of the house. In the meantime, Ramia's family was sent Rs 1,900 as her salary.
In the past year, the Mandla police have rescued around 125 girls, while the search for over 50 still continues. Some of the rescued girls are very young. A few months ago, the police recovered several girls, including Yashoda Bai Markam, 13, Siyabai, 14, and Imarti, 16 (all from Bhadali and Salamatpur villages of Mandla) when they were being taken to Jabalpur. As a consequence, a New Delhi-based agent and his Mandla accomplices have been nabbed, suggesting the presence of a network of traffickers in these areas.
Jitu Upadhyay, 19, arrested under the Bargi police station, Jabalpur, confessed to the police that his father had sold off more than 25 girls in Gwalior and Uttar Pradesh. Jitu was arrested early this year for having kept a 14-year-old girl captive for a year.
The Mandla police have also arrested a middleman working for a Delhi-based agency which has agents in Mandla, Balaghat and Dindori districts and offers placements to girls as domestic help in different cities.
The arrests, of course, reflect the extent of trafficking of women in the poor districts of MP. Rajiv Kumar, Project Manager, National Institute for Women, Child and Youth Development (NIWCYD), who works in Dindori, says that it has become common practice to take away girls on the pretext of work and then force them into prostitution. According to him, the only way this menace can be checked is if the government ensures employment so that people are not forced to send their daughters to other cities. Kumar feels that it is easy to buy and sell poor tribal girls. Traffickers do not have to spend much money and the poor parents are unable to do anything.
So would it be prudent to implement an age-bar on girls seeking employment as domestic help in other states - somewhat like the recent government ban on women under-30 seeking employment in UAE and other countries as housemaids? State Women Commission member Rajo Malviya does not seem to think so, adding that such a ban would not be practical in the state.