COVID and climate change drive many older women into prostitution in the Sundarbans

A grandmother was trafficked to Pune and sold to a brothel where she was sexually abused for 14 months

New Delhi: In the Sundarbans swamps, where constant erosion has deprived thousands of people of their homes and livelihoods, Covid has combined with climate change to create another dimension of sadness – older women, some even grandmothers, being pushed into prostitution.

Their abject poverty, compounded by a pandemic that has lasted more than two years, has left them vulnerable to traffickers who have struggled to procure young women and underage girls and shifted the focus to middle-aged women. coastal regions of West Bengal, activists said. working in the area.

“Older women are less monitored and their vulnerability has made them accessible to traffickers,” Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK) director Nihar Ranjan Raptan told PTI, while explaining why traffickers are interested in older women. middle and older. “It was difficult to find underage girls during the lockdown as they were locked up in their homes, so traffickers turned their attention to older women who needed money to keep the sex trade going. Previously, women under 24 years old were generally considered victims of trafficking,” added Raptan, whose NGO works on issues of human trafficking, children’s rights and the impact of climate change.

He said 12 to 13 women in their late 30s and 40s from the Sundarbans region who were forced into sex slavery have been rescued in the past four months. And that might just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“There must be many more caught up in this prostitution ring,” Raptan said.

In the swamp that is the Sundarbans – a vast area of ​​around 10,000 square kilometers comprising both land and water that stretches between West Bengal and Bangladesh where countless homes have been washed away and l Farming in many places has become unsustainable due to salinity – Covid has added another chapter to stories of exploitation, sexual abuse and desperation.

Like Gareema*, whose life took turns she never could have imagined after her husband died of a stroke in March 2020, just as the pandemic was gaining momentum and that India was stuck. Two months later Cyclone Amphan hit and the 49-year-old, like thousands of others, lost her home and belongings.

Gareema*, who said she was raped several times a day at a Pune brothel to which she was sold, has now returned home to Diamond Harbor in South Parganas 24 district which falls in the Sundarbans region after three months in home rehabilitation. She was trafficked when her children stopped feeding her. “I started looking for places to do household chores, but the whole area is so poor that no one had money to employ me. I thought of moving to a city to at least have a dignified life and have better opportunities, that’s when I got in touch with my trafficker who promised to take me to Kolkata where he said he there were a lot of houses looking good,” she told PTI by 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 to nine men every day. If I refused, I was beaten and I didn’t receive any food,” she said.

Gareema* was rescued in a police raid last year. After three months in a rehabilitation center, she returned home where she is still the victim of violence from her family.

“My sons abuse me, call me dirty. I started doing odd jobs around the house to earn money, but there are still days when I drink water and go to sleep” , she said in despair.

Social activist Pampa Ghosh said she was seeking compensation for her and also rehabilitation homes where she could be moved to long-term.

There are a lot of Gareemas* in the area, explains the social worker from the GBBK and others.

Shamila*, 42, is also a grandmother. She was seeking employment at an outstation as a domestic helper when she disappeared in May 2021 from her home in South 24 Parganas.

Her sons are still looking for her, but she is believed to be in contact with traffickers who likely pushed her into prostitution, Ghosh said.

“Her whereabouts are still unknown. Her sons eventually 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 thankfully rescued after a week and is currently housed in a government house in Goa .

According to Ghosh, traffickers identify and take advantage of the financial vulnerability of older women due to COVID-19 and climate change.

Although some were rescued, many may still have been caught up in online sex trafficking from the area whose whereabouts are unknown. “We are still realizing the full impact that COVID-19 has brought to this region which is already battling the effects of climate change,” she said.

Subhasree Raptan from GGBK said several areas in the Sundarbans were washed away by rising waters displacing large numbers of people who were then forced to migrate due to financial insecurity and vulnerabilities.

In most cases, she said, agriculture has become unsustainable due to increased water salinity due to sea level rise. As a result, poverty is abject and people, especially women, desperately seek livelihoods 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 in the northern Indian Ocean, with economic losses reported in India of about 14 billion. This has led to the displacement of 2.4 million people in India, mostly in West Bengal and Odisha, according to a flagship UN report.

South and North Parganas 24 are said to be among the most affected regions in India due to climate change.

A UN report said the COVID-19 pandemic has created larger pools of vulnerable people who, due to their worsened economic situation, have been recruited for labor or sexual exploitation.

According to official data, the maximum number of human trafficking cases recorded under sexual exploitation for prostitution in 2020 was 1,466. However, experts say the actual numbers are several times higher than the official figures and that there are countless people like Shamila* who have probably been trafficked and whose whereabouts are unknown.

(*Names changed to protect identity).

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