“Last week, we rescued a missing girl from Pune. In another operation, we rescued 18 minor girls from Bihar. We have been conducting so many rescue operations along with the police, and there are so many organised trafficking rackets involved in this that we have realised this is a billion-dollar industry. I can say with certainty that this is the third largest crime syndicate after weapons and drugs,” asserts Triveni Acharya, Co-founder and President of the Rescue Foundation.
Triveni Acharya, Co-founder and President of the Rescue Foundation, speaks to The Probe’s Naziya Perveen.
Maharashtra police recently sent the alarm bells ringing when it released the list of girls and women who went missing in the state. Between January 1 and March 31 alone, 3594 girls and women aged 16 to 35 went missing in the state. The numbers have sent shockwaves across the country, and experts say many of these girls and women were victims of gender-based violence, human trafficking and forced marriages.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, aimed at preventing and combating human trafficking and related offences, lacks effective implementation. The Act does not have a uniform and stringent penalty structure. Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with kidnapping-related offences. But over the years, several concerns have been raised regarding Section 363. The language used in the section is broad and open to interpretation, leading to ambiguity in defining what constitutes “kidnapping”.
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In Mumbai alone, between January and March this year, 383 girls went missing, but not all girls are victims of trafficking. Audrey Dmello, an advocate and the Director of Majlis, a legal centre for women and children, has a different take on the data. “For the past ten years, I have been working on cases of rape in Mumbai, and I am incredibly familiar with the data related to Mumbai. We have our own data and have found that many of these girls are subjected to extremely high levels of violence within their homes, and their sexuality is completely controlled. We have also found that there is a high rate of sexual abuse within the families itself of these girls. As far as the Mumbai data is concerned, I can tell you with my experience that more than kidnapping and trafficking, the police need to look at why many girls are leaving their homes. The truth is many leave their homes because they want to escape the torture and abuse within their own families."
But Dmello notes that setting up committees will not solve the problem. Rather, it will only complicate matters. “I am absolutely against any committee being set up because, out of my experience, I am telling you that these committees would further end up harassing the girls. The girls don’t need more harassment. They have already faced much torment within their families. Moral policing is so much high, and there is no way to stop the abuse of parental power over these girls. These angles are never looked into. First, we need to address the abuse that girls undergo in their homes.”
Dmello explains, "I still remember the case of a 17-year-old girl who ran away from her home because her parents abused her. She slept in the rickshaw and on the streets, and she did this for two whole weeks because she preferred to stay on the roads rather than go back to her home. The problem is that we never ask what happened to a girl in her own house. There is so much reverence attached to family, parents, and parenthood that we fail to recognise parental abuse in our country. The sad part is that when most of these girls are caught by law enforcement agencies, they are pushed back into the same homes and into the same abusive environment. I have seen girls who say that I will not go back home. Put me in a shelter, and I will stay there till I turn 18. So, there are multiple facets to this issue."
Dr Meeran Chaddha Borwankar, an IPS officer who retired as the Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, emphasises the need for concerted action. Borwankar also served on the Maharashtra cadre of the IPS from 1981 to 2017. She was the Director General of the National Crime Records Bureau and the Commissioner of Police in Pune. Having handled many complaints about missing girls and women, Borwankar says the increase in missing women could be because of crime syndicates, but it is more than just the job of the police. As a community, we need to work together to bring the girls back and rehabilitate them.
“There could be a crime syndicate, which needs to be investigated. But I would say there needs to be concerted efforts. The community, the panchayats, parents, school and college teachers need to be very prompt in reporting missing girls to the police and the police, in turn, must use informants and technology to trace them and bring the perpetrators to justice,” says Dr Borwankar.
Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi and the Chairwoman of Women Power Connect, a national organisation of women’s groups cautions that the Maharashtra data should be a wake-up call to other states. “In our own personal experience, working in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, we know for a fact that only one case of such a crime gets reported when ten such crimes take place. So, the other way of looking at it is when such large numbers are being reported, we at least know that the police have now started registering cases. But the reality is that women have been missing from every part of our country for decades. The problem is that the police do not consider these cases priority cases.