Downtown Chennai, located in the state of Tamil Nadu in Eastern India, boasts sweeping views of the Bay of Bengal, historic museums, religious sites and, for foodies, arguably the best Madras curry on the planet. The city was once named Madras, after all. Beyond the tourist attractions and social media-worthy snapshots, Chennai is also known for its dense population.
As one of India’s largest cities, Chennai has a population of over 7 million people living within 165 sq. miles. For a point of reference, New York City’s population of 8 million lives within an area almost twice as large. Every bustling block of Chennai is like a walk through Midtown Manhattan during lunch hour. Crowded, loud and anxiety inducing. But they like it that way. “They” being the traffickers; those involved in the notorious network of selling young girls and boys. When every sidewalk in Chennai is a sea of hustling vendors, desperate beggars and everyone in between, it’s much easier for a girl or boy to simply disappear into the ubiquitous network of human trafficking without anyone noticing.
Although human trafficking happens on every continent, its presence in India is especially high given its dense population living in extreme poverty. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 224 million, of the world’s 765 million, people living on less than $1.90 a day live in India. Desperation resulting from such poverty, combined with a legacy of being undervalued in their community, has made young Indian girls especially vulnerable to trafficking abuses.
While boys are seen as capable providers, able to support their parents into old age, girls in these situations are sometimes considered economic burdens. This leaves them susceptible to being sold to wealthy individuals as domestic servants who are bound to perform household duties without the ability to leave. Known as a “housemaids”, these girls, sometimes as young as seven years old, are often forced into non-consensual sexual exploitation in addition to caring for their “owner’s” home.
Much like a door-to-door salesmen, profiteers snake their way through the poorest of Indian communities making empty promises to parents as a means to persuade them into selling their daughter. They not only offer her the security of a fine factory job, safe living quarters and a fair wage, but they assure the parents an instant cash payout, sometimes equating to more than year’s income, upon receipt. Without other viable options to obtain capital of that degree, parents oblige with the sale. Although some parents truly believe their decision is in the best interest of their daughter, other families, like Sangeetha’s*, know the future fate of their daughter from the start.
Sangeetha was given a name with the religious meaning of “prostitute” at birth, leaving no doubt her life path was predestined and out of her control. Living in destitute conditions in the slums of Chennai, Sangeetha’s parents subscribed to the belief that their daughter could only be an asset if she was sold. After attaining puberty, Sangeetha joined dozens of other girls in Chennai and was auctioned and sold. In exchange for roughly $300, she became the “property” of a volatile ring of traffickers who proceeded to sexually exploit and physically and psychologically abuse her for several years. She was no longer known as Sangeetha. In the eyes of her “owner”, she was a product, not a human being.
Amara, a courageous and clever Zoe Empowers graduate, learned of Sangeetha and devised a rescue plan. Amara* told Sangeetha’s captors that she was sick and needed to go with Amara for one week to receive proper medication and recover. Today, Sangeetha is safe and under the watchful eye of a mentor but remains hidden in the slums of Chennai, for fear that going outside of it will result in being captured again. As the rescuer, Amara could also be in danger, but since joining an empowerment group in 2014, she receives protection from law enforcement and government officials within the Zoe Empowers network.
Because Zoe Empowers equips girls to find their voice, enforce their human rights and take ownership of their lives, forming more empowerment groups in Chennai is critical in the fight against human trafficking. Though profound to an outsider, a Zoe Empowers program graduate has the confidence to explain her value to her parents, essentially convincing them not to sell her. With the help of her fellow empowerment group members and sometimes a community mentor, these conversations are proving to be successful. In certain circumstances where a family has received a downpayment for their daughter from a trafficker but no longer has the money, Zoe Empowers will provide those funds to the parents so that the girl can be bought back and welcomed into an empowerment group.
Under the support of ZOE’s network, dozens of program graduates are also stepping in to intercept sales around Chennai. Girls, just like Amara, who have escaped and are committed to helping other trafficking victims. They are familiar with the intricacies of trafficking and are able to anticipate actions so that more girls are being saved. By forming and funding additional Zoe Empowers empowerment groups, the effort can effectively be multiplied in Chennai and beyond.
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*All names have been changed for privacy and protection