By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Oct 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India must target the "customers" of the sex trade and choke demand if the country is serious about ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children, experts said on Friday.
Thousands of children largely from poor rural families are lured or abducted by traffickers every year in India, and sold onto pimps and brothels who force them into sexual slavery.
While the government has introduced a plethora of measures to combat the crime over the years - from strengthening laws to boosting social welfare schemes to uplift the impoverished - reports of young girls being sold for sex are rising.
Police officials, academics and politicians said this was mainly due to the poor enforcement of legislation. They called on the government to focus on the men who buy sex with minors, adding that certainty of punishment was best deterrent.
"At the centre of commercial sex exploitation lies the customer," said P.M. Nair, chair professor and research coordinator on human trafficking at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, launching a new report to combat the crime.
"We can focus on the traffickers, the transporters, the pimps and the brothel owners, but the fact remains that at the centre of it all is the customer. Yet prosecutions of customers are rare, if at all, in most states in India."
Nair said that unless authorities took a "customer-centric" approach to combating the buying and selling of children for sex and choked the demand, India would not be able stop the crime.
EASY PREY FOR TRAFFICKERS
India has one of largest populations of children in the world, with more than 40 percent of its 1.2 billion people below the age of 18, according to its 2011 Census.
An economic boom of the last two decades has lifted millions out of poverty yet many children are still born into dire circumstances. India is home to over 30 percent of the world's 385 million most impoverished children, says the World Bank.
They make easy prey for traffickers, fed promises of a job and a better life - but often ending up in various forms of forced labour.
Almost 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in India in 2016, a rise of nearly 25 percent from the previous year, according to government data.
They loiter at traffic lights in cities, weaving between cars and knocking on windows to beg, or in makeshift roadside eateries washing dishes, or fields of cotton, rice and maize, toiling in the heat and exposed to toxic pesticides.
In wealthy middle class homes, they clean and care for children sometimes older than themselves, and in brothels they wait with painted faces to be raped by stranger after stranger.
While some children manage to escape or are rescued in police raids after tip-offs from activists or local residents, others are not so fortunate, trapped for years.
The demand to focus on the men who buy sex is one of a series of measures in the report by the National Coalition to Protect Our Children (NCPOC), an initiative started by Indian parliamentarian Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
Other recommendations include establishing a database on missing children, boosting training and resources for law enforcement agencies and establishing special children's courts.
"The abject poverty that most parts of our country still face is an enabling environment for child trafficking and to further compound this there is a lack of institutional organisation to protect our children," said Chandrasekhar.
"There are laws to prosecute the customers, but they are not being enforced."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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