Smita Sharma - We Cry In Silence
Meena finished her daily morning chores and was on her way to school in rural West Bengal, India when she met a man who professed his love for her. In the next meeting, he convinced her to elope with him to Delhi with the promise of marriage. A week later, Meena found herself locked up at a brothel in Agra.
I’ve been investigating child sex trafficking since I met Meena in 2015. Though trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry that spans the globe, India, Nepal and Bangladesh’s widespread poverty and illiteracy makes the region a fertile ground for this crime to thrive. India is home to more than 400 million children below the age of 18 years and thousands of children go missing every year. The situation is similar in Bangladesh and Nepal and both these countries share a porous border with India. The Bangladesh government estimates 50,000 girls are trafficked to India every year while according to Nepal's women and social welfare ministry, 26 of Nepal's 75 districts are prone to human trafficking.
Rishi Kant, an anti-human trafficking activist, once said to me, “You can sell a girl easily from these regions. All you need to do is gift a cheap phone and ask her to elope with you.” Girls are trafficked with false promises of jobs and marriage and sold across various red-light areas in the country or for unpaid and often exploitative domestic work. Although police frequently raid brothels to rescue enslaved minors, the trafficking nexus is deeply entrenched and highly organized. Traffickers move freely because of low conviction rates.
'We Cry In Silence' is my seven-year long investigation on cross-border trafficking of minor girls across India, Bangladesh and Nepal for sex work. I have also included a chapter on the under-reported issue of trafficking of indigenous girls for domestic servitude. This work was published globally by National Geographic Magazine in the October 2020 issue as “Stolen Lives”.
I started to work on this under-reported issue to initiate dialogue and build empathy. In order to protect the privacy of the girls who were trafficked and to comply with Indian laws that prohibit the visual identification of victims of sexual crimes, I photographed them with various techniques that would obscure their identities.
I've worked closely with the Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) of the police and have joined them on multiple rescue operations. When some of the officers saw my work, they said it deeply motivated them and they suggested something more permanent, which they could use as training material. These thoughts planted the seed of publishing a book.
"We Cry In Silence" is now a multi-lingual photo book published by FotoEvidence with illustrations, resources and other material that is aimed to educate people about this global complex crime.