Project Title: The Vanishing Girls of West Bengal
In 2015, the UNODC stated that over 12,000 minors were reported missing or kidnapped in India’s state of West Bengal. The majority were young girls, 80% of whom were statistically destined to be sold into brothels across the country. The region is classed as one of South Asia’s worst hotspots for child trafficking by the same report but remains dangerous, unknown and unaddressed by the international human rights community.
In 2013, I initiated what became a three-year investigation into West Bengal’s problem of child trafficking, uniquely tracking the trafficking routes themselves while attempting to document the lives of underage sex workers in as honest, nuanced and empowering a way as possible.
Our story begins in the region’s rural, border districts – South 24 Parganas, Nonchapota and Forbesganj – where the rampant practice of underage marriage serves as as a gateway to the abuse, kidnapping and trade of girls. Girls as young as 11 are sold to husbands against their will, often by their own families. They are treated as the property of their in-laws, forced to work as domestic servants and forgo school and their independence for child rearing and fulfilling their elder husbands wishes. In this way, child marriage becomes a form of trafficking in itself.
From here, in-laws often sell brides to traffickers, bonded labourers and pimps. Other girls are abandoned by their husbands and left socio-economically vulnerable. Preying traffickers specifically target this group offering false securing and employment, only to then kidnap the girls or sell them on again. One location that typified this trend was the village of Pathatpratima, in the South 24 Parganas district, where local NGO Shakti Vahini claims that 57% of teenage girls have gone missing or been presumed kidnapped. Settlements such as this lie at the route of West Bengal’s trafficking problem – marred by poverty, institutional misogyny, poor policing and injustice. Families here mourn lost daughters and sisters who are almost always never heard of again.
Once taken, traffickers hold girls as young as 8 for weeks in halfway houses. Pimps, gang members and traffickers systematically break down the girls’ morale here – shackled in chains, forced to live in squalor and abused repeatedly – all as a way of preparing them for their impending sale into red-light districts across India.
From here, girls are bought by brothel owners and transported to metropolises where demand for young girls thrives. At West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, lies Sonagachi, Asia’s second largest red-light district, the final destination for over 80% of trafficked minors in the region. The neighbourhood exists as a sprawling, illegal network of organised gangs, traffickers and victims: a place where reporters and outsiders are threatened away by violence, politicians and police are bribed or complicit, and an estimated 13,000 prostituted women, often under the age of 18, are effectively raped everyday for £2. My investigation explores this neighbourhood’s brothels, aiming to highlight the nuanced struggles of daily life within – from episodes of gang horror and abuse to brothel sorority and resilience.
Beyond Kolkata, police rescue operations are expanding but severely undermanned in their attempts to tackle trafficking chains.
The aim of this ongoing investigation was to amplify the voice of thousands of trafficked young women who have been systematically stripped of human choice and expression. I want it to inform topical debates in India today on sexual inequality, graft and development. And, perhaps most importantly, I want it to provoke ordinary people to sit back callously no longer, but begin empathising, questioning and contributing to a process of improvement.
Souvid Datta was born in 1990 in Mumbai, and moved to London aged 10. Since then he has been raised between the two metropolises, within an artistic and politically active family. He developed an interest in the fields of multimedia journalism, social justice and conflict studies while completing his university studies in International Law and War Studies. During these years he began professionally pursuing multimedia journalism and has since completed commissioned and personal projects across Europe, North Africa, Central America, Afghanistan, South Asia and China, working for clients including TIME, The Guardian, The New York Times and Vice. In his eyes, visual storytelling is a powerful tool for self-expression, informing public debate and documenting history. He currently works as a freelance multimedia journalist and film-maker.