New Delhi, April 10 (PTI): In the swamplands of the Sundarbans, where steady erosion has robbed thousands of people of their homes and livelihoods, Covid has combined with climate change to wrought another dimension of grimness – older women, some even grandmothers, being pushed into prostitution.
Their abject poverty, made worse by a pandemic that has stretched on for more than two years, made them vulnerable to traffickers who found it difficult to procure young women and minor girls and shifted focus to middle aged women from West Bengal’s coastal regions, said activists working in the area.
“There is less scrutiny on older women and their vulnerability has made them accessible to traffickers,” Nihar Ranjan Raptan, director of the Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK), told PTI while explaining why traffickers are interested in middle aged and older women.
“It was difficult to find minor girls during the lockdown as they were locked in their homes so traffickers moved their attention to older women who were in need of money to keep the sex trade going. Earlier, women below 24 years were usually seen to be trafficked,” Raptan, whose NGO works on issues of human trafficking, child rights and climate change impact, added.
He said 12-13 women in their late 30s and 40s from the Sundarbans area who were pushed into sex slavery have been rescued over the last four months. And this could just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“There must be many many more caught in this prostitution ring,” Raptan said.
In the marshland that is the Sundarbans – a vast area of about 10,000 square kilometres including both land and water that stretches between West Bengal and Bangladesh where countless homes have been washed away and agriculture in many places has become unviable due to salinity – Covid has added another chapter to the stories of exploitation, sexual abuse and desperation.
Like Gareema*, whose life took turns she never could have imagined after her husband’s death due to a brain stroke in March 2020, just when the pandemic was gathering force and India went into lockdown. Two months later, Cyclone Amphan hit, and the 49-year-old like many thousands of others lost her home and belongings.
Gareema*, who said she was raped multiple times everyday in a brothel in Pune to which she was sold to, has now returned to her home in Diamond Harbour in the South Parganas 24 district that falls in the Sundarbans region after three months in a rehabilitation home. She was trafficked when her children stopped giving her food.
“I started looking for places to do household chores but the whole area is so poverty stricken that no one had money to employ me. I thought of moving to a city so that at least I would have life of dignity and would have better opportunities, that is when I came in touch with my trafficker who promised to take me to Kolkata where he said there are many houses looking for maids,” she told PTI over the phone.
Instead of Kolkata, Gareema*, a grandmother, was trafficked to Pune and sold to a brothel where she was sexually abused for 14 months.
“I was raped by eight-nine men everyday. If I refused I was beaten and not given food,” she said.
Gareema* was rescued in a police raid last year, After three months in a rehabilitation home, she has returned home where she is still facing abuse from her family.
“My sons abuse me, call me dirty. I have started doing odd jobs at homes to get some money but still there are days when I just drink water and go to sleep,” she said despairingly.
Social activist Pampa Ghosh said they are seeking compensation for her and also looking for rehabilitation homes where she can be shifted for long term.
There are many Gareemas* in the region, said the social worker from GGBK and others.
Shamila*, 42, is also a grandmother. She was looking for outstation employment as a domestic help when she disappeared in May 2021 from her home in South 24 Parganas.
Her sons are still looking for her but she was said to be in touch with some traffickers who probably pushed her into prostitution, Ghosh said.
“Her whereabouts are still not known. Her sons finally gave up the search and moved to Bihar,” she added.
Then there is 33-year-old Samira*, who was trafficked to Goa from the Sundarbans in December last year, but was fortunately rescued after a week and is presently lodged in a government home in Goa.
According to Ghosh, traffickers identify the financial vulnerability of older women due to Covid-19 and climate change and are taking advantage of it.
Though some have been rescued, many still might have been caught in the web sex trafficking from the region whose whereabouts are unknown. “We are still in the process of realising the complete impact that Covid-19 brought in this region already battling climate change effects,” she said.
Subhasree Raptan of GGBK said several areas in the Sundarbans have been washed away due to the rise in water levels, displacing a large number of people who were then forced to migrate due to financial insecurity and vulnerabilities.
In most cases, she said, agriculture has become unviable due to the increase in salinity of the water because of sea level rise. As a result, there is abject poverty and people, particularly women, are desperate to look for livelihood as they are often the breadwinners.
Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in May last year near the India-Bangladesh border, was the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the north Indian Ocean with reported economic losses in India of approximately USD 14 billion. It resulted in the displacement of 2.4 million people in India, mostly in West Bengal and Odisha, a flagship UN report had said.
The South and North Parganas 24 are said to be among the worst affected regions in India due to climate change.
A UN report said the Covid-19 pandemic has created larger pools of vulnerable persons who, due to their worsened economic situation, were recruited for labour or sexual exploitation.
According to official data, the maximum number of cases of human trafficking was registered under the purpose of sexual exploitation for prostitution in 2020 at 1,466.
However, experts say the real numbers are several folds higher than the official figures and there are countless people like Shamila* who have been in probability trafficked and their whereabouts are not known.
(*Names changed to protect identity).