Lest we forget: The missing children of India

Missing children. Two words that conjure up possibly the most dread a parent can feel. Yet in a country like India which has one of largest populations of children in the world, with more than 40 percent of its 1.2 billion people below the age of 18[1], each day, around 150 children go missing[2]. According to TrackChild, a government database, nearly 250,000 children went missing between 2012 and 2014 alone. Not surprisingly, in 2016, the Delhi High Court raised concern over the issue of missing children in the country, equating it with the menace of terrorism.

So today, on the 18th anniversary of International Missing Children’s Day, it is important that as a nation we stop and look into the several factors that account for the disappearances.

Poverty-stricken, then enslaved

Several factors account for the disappearances, but perhaps none more so than destitution. At least half of India’s minors live in acute poverty. Children born into dire circumstances make easy prey for traffickers and are falsely lured with promises of good jobs, only to find themselves forced to work in fields or brick kilns, enslaved in homes as domestic workers, or sold to brothels.

Over a period of time, India has emerged as a source, destination as well as a transit country for the illegal activity of child trafficking and child prostitution. Missing children are so common in India that notices printed in classified sections of India’s daily newspapers are buried alongside tender notices and job vacancies, with blurred black and white photos alongside a description and a contact number. Each notice ends in the same way: Sincere efforts have been made by local police to trace out this missing girl/boy, but no clue has come to light so far.

Year-on-year figures are not available to determine whether the number of missing children is rising, but government crime data from 2015 shows an almost 60 percent rise in reported kidnappings and abductions of children over five years. The National Crime Records Bureau data also show related crimes such as trafficking and buying and selling of minors for the purpose of prostitution rising over the same period. Child trafficking and child prostitution has grown into a structural problem with adverse implications on the social, economic and organizational fabric of our society.

Hidden in plain sight

Many of India’s missing children are in public view despite being enslaved. They loiter at traffic lights in cities, weaving between cars and knocking on windows to beg, or in make-shift roadside eateries washing dishes, or in fields of cotton, rice and maize, toiling in the heat and exposed to toxic pesticides. In wealthy middle class homes, they clean and care for children sometimes older than themselves. But there are many locked in the brothels, forced to wait with painted faces to be raped by stranger after stranger. These are the ones we turn a blind eye to. And also the ones who are in need for greater public awareness before they become a part of normality.

Although the Indian law previously consisted of countless laws and provisions for addressing child trafficking, there was a legal vacuum as it ignored the process of investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences. But the recent Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 categorizes various offences into “trafficking” and “aggravated trafficking”. The former category of crimes carries a jail term of seven to 10 years while the latter can put the offenders in the clink for at least 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment. It also provides for immediate rehabilitation to address the rescued victims’ physical and mental trauma, education, skill development, health care as well as legal aid and safe accommodation. All these measures are aimed at curbing sexual exploitation by deterring criminals and providing relief and rehabilitation for the survivors.

While the provisions in the Bill try to provide a solution by filling the existing legal void, it has certain shortcomings. The biggest one being that the Bill doesn’t explicitly mention commercial sexual exploitation or child prostitution anywhere, making it difficult to prove the traffickers intent in court, as most young missing girls are trafficked for prostitution. Also, the Bill has no provision for prosecuting all those involved in commercial sexual exploitation of children including the customers whose rampant demand for young girls is never ending.

Despite all the loopholes, the Government has taken the first step by creating an organized force to combat this heinous crime by passing this comprehensive legislation. But as a society, we need to change our goals from trying to inculcate values amongst our children to inculcating the value of children among ourselves as a country. We now need to collectively work towards building a country where our children are safe, ultimately leading to the social, political and economic growth of the country. On the occasion of International Day for Missing Children, Free a Girl India is hopeful that this law would help boost the number of prosecutions and convictions related to the crime and help eventually build an ecosystem of support for trafficked children in India.

[1] , according to its 2011 Census.    [2] National Crime Record Bureau 2016