India has an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers of which 16 million are said to be victims of sex trafficking, many of them being children. Every year, hundreds of children from across the country are lured by traffickers with false promises and are then sold and forced into sex work. Demand for young girls is growing, yet, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEoC) in the country continues to be highly under-reported and often goes unrecognised. Telangana is a case in point.
A study conducted by trafficking and migration researcher Roop Sen has found that in 2016 and 2015, only one case of child trafficking was reported under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) in the state, whereas in 2014 the number stood at 3. This is in spite of the fact that it has been established that brothel-based child sex work exists, as evidenced from the raids in Yadagirigutta and Ramayampet in Medak district.
Titled ‘Choking Demand for Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children’, the study also notes that most of the child victims are housed in private apartments, which make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify and track them.
Changing nature of CSEoC
The study took into account interviews of several people including police officers in Telangana who corroborated the changing nature of CSEoC. Girls are brought into the state from other parts of the country on a contractual basis and forced to do sex work. However, this is only for a fixed period of time, after which they are moved out of the state. This makes identifying incidents of CSEoC even more difficult.
The study quotes police officers are saying, "contractual sex work occurring in the state, in which girls from West Bengal were brought into the state for a fixed time period and prostituted before being moved out of the state again. Measuring incidence of CSE(o)C is therefore not easy."
Preparedness of law enforcement agencies and challenges
In cases of CSEoC, the focus is often mostly on the survivors, their rescue and the trauma they've faced. In such a one-sided approach, it is seen that the role of customers and perpetrators go neglected. However, the police feel that the current political climate is supportive to tackle CSEoC cases. Forty-two customers in 2016 and at least 76 in 2017 were reported to have been arrested.
However, the preparedness to deal with these cases is not up to the mark. "Low income group offenders are easier to arrest as they use brothels. Difficulties in arresting sex offenders during raids include lack of preparedness (resulting in customers escaping), corruption, treating raids as routine investigation and using lenient laws against offenders resulting in easy grant of bail," the study states.
The other challenges to curb rising demand for children in sex work include "form of intelligence gathering being dependent on NGOs, and poor skills for investigation (according to CID officers and other police officials). Though laws are adequate, POCSO is used only in case of individual sexual abuse cases and not in CSoEC cases. According to stakeholders, POCSO does not mention 'commercial sexual exploitation' and they stated that this creates impunity for offenders who buy sex with children."
Does Telangana have the resources to deal with cases of CSEoC?
While the government feels that the state has sufficient technology to track online crime which in turn can be used to stop online sexual exploitation of children, others feel that the focus should also be on providing the police with more resources to curb and control the crime.
One of the major concerns noted in the study is a lack of dedicated police personnel to work on CSEoC cases. The study states, "The others who felt police had resources added that intervention to arrest offenders would only be possible if the police developed an intention to do so. The only barrier was the intention and the attitude of police towards offenders who buy sex with children, and crimes against children."
There also does not seem to be clear information available on the number of Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) in the state. While the researcher found no information regarding the number of AHTUs in the state available on government websites, news reports indicate that there are two such unit in Karimnagar and Hyderabad.
Challenges to curbing demand
The study states that "capacities for demand deterrence are moderate because they have yet to be formalised. Within the police, initiatives have been localized with no standard investigation protocol or method used to choke demand by arresting and convicting offenders who buy sex with children, and the knowledge of laws with respect to offenders remains low."
Another issue highlighted in the report is that the investigation, intelligence and prosecution in CSEoC cases is largely aimed at the rescue of victims instead of conviction of perpetrators.