Young girls face trafficking as lack of rain drives worsening rural poverty

by Teresa Rehman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 May 2010 13:45 GMT

By Teresa Rehman

NALBARI DISTRICT, India (AlertNet) Â? The rescue of 17-year-old Nitumoni (name changed) from a brothel in Shillong city recently points to a new danger as climate change takes hold in Northeast India Â? trafficking of vulnerable women.

Nitumoni's widowed mother, from Madhupur village, used to work as a daily wage labourer at rice fields in her village, near the Bhutan border.

But as groundwater dries up in the region and rains fall short, farmers are giving up rice production, leaving families like Nitumoni's without work and struggling to make ends meet.

So when a distant relative offered to take Nitumoni to Shillong, the capital of neighboring Meghalaya state, to work as a domestic helper, her impoverished family agreed. But the girl instead ended up in a brothel, before being rescued recently by police.

This has raised new worries about the dangers facing young girls as their already poor families struggle to cope with added burdens brought on by climate change.

"It dawned on me that climate change had much broader implications than it appears. Issues like human trafficking come to the limelight only when such an incident takes place. Otherwise, nobody wants to talk about it," said Prithibhusan Deka, president of Gramya Vikas Mancha, a non-profit local development organization.

Many young girls sent from poor homes to find work end up trafficked to India as prostitutes or poorly paid factory workers, she said.

The organization is now working to fight the problem, which has been growing in remote villages badly hit by erratic rainfall and near-drought situations, she said.

GIRLS SENT TO CITY AS FARM INCOMES FALL

"This raises questions about human trafficking in the name of searching for alternate means of livelihood. We are conducting a baseline survey of young women, mostly climate refugees who are trafficked and forced into sex work in big cities in India. It is very difficult to get accurate statistics as nobody wants to talk about it. But we know that there are middlemen who are operating in these areas," Deka said.

In a growing number of villages in Assam, groundwater levels are very low and farmers are dependent on natural rainfall or dongs, traditional water channels that are the main source of irrigation and drinking water.

The age-old water management system is particularly important to the most thirsty villages in the area.

Dongs are akin to small dams built on a river, with water diverted through canals to fields and backyard ponds. But gradually even the dongs are now drying up.

Due to rampant deforestation in the foothills of Bhutan, heavy rains during the monsoons now carry rocks, soil and silt that block the dongs, said Ramani Thakuria, a senior agronomist at Assam Agricultural University. And in winter, the systems increasingly run completely dry, particularly as rainfall becomes more erratic.

As a result, farmers engaged in water-intensive rice cultivation have been severely affected, with many now moving to cities in search of new work or sending family members there to supplement falling incomes on the farm.

Nitumoni, her family's oldest child, was sent to the city to help support her mother and younger siblings, according to police who raided a brothel, rescuing a number of young girls.

Alarmed by the growing poverty-driven trafficking problem, Deka's organization is now working to introduce technology to help farmers earn more income at home.

Under a "rice intensification" effort, families in 100 villages in Nalbari and Baksa districts in Assam are getting training in how to grow rice with much less water and commercial fertilizer. The system, developed in the 1980s in Madagascar, has been successfully used in other parts of India.

"Water shortage and erratic rainfall is a global phenomenon due to climate change and we expect this to continue. We will have to improvise our agricultural methods accordingly to cope with the vagaries of nature," said Ramani Kanta Sarma of Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi, an Indian development NGO that gives training on rice intensification techniques.

The organization, which began introducing the system in Assam two years ago, plans to have trained farmers throughout the state within three years, Sarma said.

This new technology has produced an enthusiastic response from farmers in some of the state's poorest and most remote districts.

"As community water resources were drying up, many of my fellow farmers were contemplating giving up rice cultivation. But we are looking forward to this new technology now," said Basistha Talukdar, one Nalbari district farmer.

"We have to arrange for our own water," added Ananta Kalita, a young farmer from Teteliguri village, near the Bhutan border. "There is no system to procure water from far-off places. We will have to make the best of what we have."

Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at www.teresarehman.net