The women fighting trafficking in India

Jesuit Missions’ Director, Paul Chitnis, meets women in India faced with poverty and exploitation. 

Darjeeling, with its vast tea plantations nestling against the sloping foothills of the Himalayas, is a beautiful region of India. The city itself is spectacular with buildings perched on vertiginously high hills seemingly in defiance of gravity. But its cool climate and Himalayan vistas have a darker side.  The commercialisation of India has led to the closure of many tea plantations.  In some, the tea bushes have been ripped up to be replaced by shopping centres for the growing middle class.  In others, the wages of the workers, mainly women, do not meet even the meagre minimum wage.  Poverty and a lack of opportunity are making many women susceptible to human traffickers and their false promises of wealth in the cities.

During a recent visit to India, I saw the work of the Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC) supported by Jesuit Missions.  It is helping to combat the migration of women to cities like Delhi and Calcutta. They raise awareness about the enormous risks of trafficking and they have recruited volunteers to monitor the presence of traffickers in local communities. They also offer skills training in, for example, weaving or carpet making to improve the women’s job prospects.

Skills training is a vital step towards improving job prospects for women

Fr Lalit Tirkey SJ, the Director, introduced me to seven young women, all vulnerable to traffickers.  Most said they could not continue in school because their parents had died or could not afford the fees. They are paid a pitifully low wage to pick tea: about £1.50 for an 8 hour day. One young woman revealed that a woman on a bus had asked her if she would like to go to Delhi to do a fashion design course.  Fearing the worst, she declined.

A vitally important campaign

The women were joined by Sabitha, a married woman in her thirties with a young child.  Sabitha explained how she was effectively sold for £800 as a domestic servant to a family in Delhi.  Unsurprisingly she was abused and maltreated.  None of her traffickers’ promises were realised but Sabitha could not escape.  She lost contact with her family and it was only through the efforts of Fr Tirkey and his team that Sabitha was tracked down and reunited with her family.  Speaking through tears, she passionately urged the younger women not to go the cities warning them of the consequences of doing so.

Fr Tirkey estimates there are 3500 women who have been trafficked from Darjeeling.  Jesuit Missions is committed to supporting the Jesuits’ work in Darjeeling and other parts of India.  We are also supporting a national Jesuit programme, Lok Manch, in India of which HLDRC is a part.  Alongside 92 other organisations, it is working to help 300,000 of the poorest households secure their right to food. India has more than 20% of the total amount of people in the world suffering from hunger and this is a vitally important campaign with which JM is proud to be associated.