Photojournalist Smita Sharma has spent the last few years working to expose injustices in India. For three years, she used her camera to capture the realities of rape and sexual abuse in the country. But while she was traveling through India, she also came across young girls and women who had been trafficked as domestic servants, which inspired a new project.
Sharma has since been exploring the Dooars region of India, which has become a center for trafficking young girls to be domestic servants. She has been hearing people’s stories, sometimes taking pictures, sometimes not. Her project, called, “Domestic servitude trafficking in India,” focuses on “the lives of the trafficked survivors and their struggles,” as well as “the stories of families whose daughters have gone missing.”
Sharma has found her subjects through partnerships with local police and the anti-trafficking organization, Shakti Vahini.
Through her research, Sharma has learned that in the Dooars area, girls as young as ten years old are taken from their homes, usually by a family member or neighbor, and sold as domestic slaves for between $300 and $1,000. They are targeted while walking to school, using the bathroom late at night or early in the morning, and traveling with family members.
“These girls are not in demand in the sex industry because they are too dark and skinny,” Sharma told the New York Times. “That is why they are sold as domestic slaves. If they were more fleshy or voluptuous, they would be in high demand in the sex trade.”
The traffickers often pose as legitimate placement agencies, so the people purchasing the young girls do not realize that they were victims of trafficking. Sometimes, the truth about their origins comes out after a few years and the authorities are contacted, but the victims are often pressured to drop any legal action.
The New York Times article tells a story of a young girl who managed to escape after being kidnapped and raped. She found her way to the police and then back to her own village, but her assailant’s family harassed her and pressured her not to pursue any legal measures. She wasn’t even allowed to see her parents until she dropped any legal measures, to further weaken her resolve.
Some girls and women never make it back home. In Sharma’s project, many families have no idea what happened to their daughters, and many girls are afraid to admit that they had been kidnapped and trafficked. This resigns them to a lifetime away from their families and into servitude.
According to the Global Slavery Index 2016, India is the country with the highest number of slaves, with more than an estimated 18,000,000 Indians living in modern slavery. That is about 1.4 percent of the country’s population. Modern slavery includes forced labor, forced marriage, forced sexual exploitations, and state-imposed labor, according to Alliance 8.7’s Global Estimates 2017.
“Sometimes they’ve been abused in the houses, and many of them are beaten up badly,” Sharma said about the trafficking victims she’s spoken to. “You have to make them comfortable and make them trust you, but they do share their stories.”
Sharma’s photo stories have been bringing to light these injustices in India. They are often not discussed, but trafficking for domestic servants is a major problem that separates girls from their families. The world needs more people like Sharma to bring awareness to less common forms of social and gender injustices in the world.
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