If those part of child rescue operations are to be believed then Kashmir has lately become ‘a hotbed for human trafficking’. But fighting this menace head-on is an unassuming army of minors.
Holding her favorite toy, Faiza Jan, 8, is walking along the sidewalk outside her home when a man steps out of his car.
He comes close to her with some goodies. Faiza hesitates as she looks into the man’s eyes, unsure if she should accept chocolates from a stranger. Before she can decline, the man removes her favorite candy and she cannot resist.
Faiza takes all the chocolates and smiles with gratitude. The man then lures her into his car, promising to buy her more chocolates and new toys. Excited about the toys, Faiza holds the man’s hand and sits with him in his car, little realizing that she has landed in the hands of traffickers.
Curtains fall for an interval, leaving the crowd buzzing in curiosity.
This was a community play being shown to a packed audience in the Shalinar area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. The play was organized and directed by a group of local children who are part of larger initiative called Childline Children Club, or Shur’e Panchayat, which is part of Childline Jammu and Kashmir, an NGO that advocates child rights and promotes awareness about child trafficking.
“What sets the awareness campaign apart is that it’s promoted by children,” said Shameema Akhtar, 26, who helped direct the play with eight girls and boys as actors.
“I thought of doing something that could make impact on children as well as their parents, and the idea of making a small skit struck my mind and I discussed with other members of NGO. They helped me to realise my idea.”
Shameema believes that visual stories make more impact on people than mere verbal awareness.
“When people watch movies they still remember some scenes from it and then they discuss those scenes with each other,” she says. “This’s why I thought of making a small skit in our community so that children will be mindful about trafficking and their safety and they will not fall prey to traffickers.”
There is another unique thing about these children – they keep an eye out for traffickers and trafficked children in their community and alert the NGO.
Childline has educated children from various areas in Srinagar district about human trafficking and these children in turn have formed small clubs in their respective communities. If they spot anything suspicious, they immediately inform their club head, who in turn informs the NGO.
Presently, there’re eight to nine childline clubs working at various locations across Srinagar district. Only the Shalinar Children Club has 26 children as its members.
Farhana Ayoub, 14-year-old president of the Shalinar Children Club, has been doing many activities to educate children about trafficking during the pandemic lockdown.
“Every day we have half hour meetings with children and we hear from them their concerns and perceptions,” said Farhana. “During Covid-19 lockdowns we were not able to meet regularly but I have been to the home of every child to hear from them. We also trained children about precautions taken to curb the virus.”
Apart from awareness about child trafficking, these children donate Rs. 1 or 2 from their daily pocket money into the club fund. Farhana and Shameema use that money to help underprivileged children who need stationary or with any other small expense.
Hakeen Javaid, who’s the Project Coordinator for Childline, said the lockdowns prohibited his team from inspecting child trafficking issues or any violation of child rights in Kashmir.
But with the formation of children clubs, he said, Childline has been able to curb various incidents of child trafficking in Srinagar.
“We conducted several workshops in which we invited children and informed them about child rights,” said Javaid. “We selected few children among them to run children clubs.”
Children from small towns in Kashmir, the Childline chairman continued, are trafficked to Srinagar after being lured by traffickers who promise to provide education. “Instead, they’re forced to work as domestic workers in affluent homes.”
A rescue mission by minors for minors
On a bone chilling morning of January 2021, six-year-old Nyla (not her real name) was carrying a dustbin to a dumping site in the old city area of Srinagar. She was new to the place. The children of the club in that area regularly saw her dumping garbage in Srinagar Municipal Corporation’s dustbin even on snowy days.
They kept an eye on Nyla and collected information that she was working as a domestic worker in the family.
The club members took some pictures of Nyla while she was dumping the garbage and discussed her case with the NGO.
“We received information about Nyla from the club,” said one of the members of the NGO who requested anonymity. “We verified the facts, visited the family and got confirmation that Nyla was from Kupwara. She was brought here to be admitted in a school but was taken in as a domestic worker by a rich family.”
The family said that they’re giving education to Nyla but she was not admitted in any school even after spending a year with them. “Their other children were already taking classes in private schools but for Nyla they cited lockdown as a hiccup,” said the NGO member.
On the same day, the NGO informed the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and they rescued Nyla.
The NGO took the custody of Nyla and came to know that her nine-year-old sister, Arba (not her real name), was also living with another family in Safa Kadal area of Srinagar.
Javaid managed to get the contact details of Shadab Ahmad (not his real name), the father of Nyla and Arba, and called him to Srinagar.
Both the girls were rescued from the houses.
Living in Zab Khurhama village of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, 109 kilometers away from Srinagar, Ahmed is a daily-wager and a father of six daughters. Nyla and Arba are the youngest of the six. Due to the poor financial conditions, he was not able to afford their education.
“A person who’s known to me told me to send my two daughters with him to Srinagar where they would get good education,” the distraught father said.
Little did he know that the people he trusted would traffic the girls to Srinagar and sell them as domestic workers to two families. It was only after Javaid called him that he understood, and rushed to Srinagar.
“I’m the most helpless and unfortunate father who could not protect his daughters,” lamented Ahmed as he watched his two girls playing outside his shanty house. “I will provide them education here only because I can’t trust anyone now.”
A ‘hotbed’ for human trafficking
A Pune-based NGO, Sarhad, rescued eight minors from Kashmir in 2021. They were lured from Assam by a placement agency on the promise of well-paying jobs in apple or fruit-processing factories.
However, after arriving in the valley they were sent to differnt homes as domestic workers.
Aqib Bhat, coordinator at Sarhad, told this reporter that these minors were promised a job with a monthly salary of around Rs 9,000.
“Kashmir has become a hotbed for human trafficking,” Bhat claimed.
“Many minor boys and girls are lured to Kashmir and here they are being forced to work against their wishes. It’s an underreported crime which is ruining life of minor boys and girls.”
Trafficking, he said, can be addressed, if the government adopts strict measures and verification processes.
“There are more than 2,000 people in Kashmir who were brought here through trafficking and we are working to get them rescued very soon,” Bhat said.
Official data from the anti-trafficking cell reveals that in 2018 a minor girl from West Bengal along with three minor boys from Nepal was rescued from Srinagar.
In 2019, two boys from Bihar and Assam were rescued and sent back home, and in 2020, a young trafficked woman was rescued.
PK Pole, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, did not respond to repeated journalistic queries on the issue from this reporter.
Amid the official hush over the issue, the back-to-back Kashmir lockdowns have led to a communication vacuum to curb trafficking incidents. Before Covid-19, the conundrum in Kashmir from the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019 resulted in total shutdown of the valley.
“In 2019 there was no internet and mobile network due to which anti-trafficking drive was disrupted and many cases of trafficking were not reported,” said Javaid.
“Later the imposition of Covid-19 lockdown also made similar situation but this time we had phones working and this led to the formation of children clubs.”
Children clubs have proved to be a good step to curb the nuisance of child trafficking and spread awareness, he said.
“Any incident of trafficking or any child right violation which could not reach us is now a phone call away.”
This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.