Why Covid-19 has increased trafficking of children in parts of rural India

Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

West Bengal already had a notorious reputation for child trafficking, then came Covid-19.

A national lockdown, imposed to halt the rampant spread of the virus through India, has made life in one of its poorest and most populated regions even more desperate.

Every year thousands of girls go missing from this area, lured with promises of marriage, employment and a better life in the city.

This year, as the economic and emotional hardships of millions of families have deepened, there are those who have profited from the pandemic.

Forced prostitution, forced labour and forced marriages are all on the rise.

Primarily girls are either being tricked directly by a trafficking agent or their families are being conned into selling them into a marriage that doesn’t exist.

Once sold, most end up in larger cities working in the sex trade, or as slave labour.

We spoke to a mother whose 17-year-old daughter went missing on October 13.

It’s thought she has become one of the latest trafficking victims.

The police have logged her as a missing person but even if they had the time and resources there is little on which they can base an investigation.

This mother believes her 17-year-old daughter has fallen victim to trafficking. Credit: ITV News

Her mother wept as she described the grim situation where they live, they had made their daughter study hard to escape their poverty and were hoping to find her a husband.

They don’t have the means to try to search for her, and no trace to follow.

A local headmaster has been working to combat the problem and has 30 villages under the watch of his anti-trafficking initiative.

He says child exploitation has become an open secret in Indian society and the pandemic has made an already desperate situation, worse.

An unemployment crisis created by the lockdown and with the schools and hostels remaining closed for so long there has been nowhere for girls, and young women to stay.

Our team were given a shocking, and unexpected insight into just how common a problem it has become in the area.

After they had finished filming in a local village one evening the team - comprising three men - was approached by a woman asking if they wanted to buy a girl.

The woman claimed to be helping families sell their daughters for marriage.

During the  exchange they had with her, they were told the starting price for a girl was £500, and was more, the more beautiful the girl on offer.

There are hundreds of such women and agents operating across India and thanks to the pandemic their prey has become easier.

India’s Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi believes millions of children in India, and millions more across the rest of the world are at heightened risk due to the current situation.

He has called on global leaders to awaken their conscience and compassion or face losing a generation.

India’s Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi is working with children to help battle the issue. Credit: ITV News

Children are suffering now and will even more in the future he says, if they are not protected at this time.

His organisation has rescued more than a thousand children during the pandemic and he told us most of them were being trafficked or held in bonded labour or child labour.

Covid-19 has provided a convenient cloak for criminal networks, and in a world distracted by the virus it is the desperate and most vulnerable who will suffer.