Born into poverty, thousands of children – mostly boys – from the northern Indian state of Bihar have for years been trafficked to Jaipur to work as slaves making bangles and sewing fabrics for its multi-billion dollar handicraft industry.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state, which has one of India’s highest numbers of child workers – 250,000 – in a country where some 4.4 million children aged five to 14 work, census data shows.
Jaipur city administration vowed in January to make the city of fortresses and palaces free of child labour, in a campaign which includes creating a pool of counsellors to help the police and lawyers work with victims to boost conviction rates.
Although the state-run district legal services authority, which offers legal aid, estimates there are usually about 200 child labour cases ongoing in Jaipur courts, there had not been a single conviction in a decade at the start of 2019.
“Prosecution of traffickers is almost impossible unless the child and his family understand that child labour is a crime,” said Suresh Kumar, executive director of Bihar-based child protection charity Centre DIRECT.
“The crime can be busted only through counselling of the child and his family, who often don’t know that their son was beaten, denied food and forced to work 12 hours. They don’t realise that some boys can barely stand when they are rescued.”
Children rescued by the police were taken to shelters but with limited psychological support, they usually refused to open up to staff, police or lawyers.
The government set up a Centre for Child Protection at the Rajasthan Police Academy in 2015 to research child rights and train the police, judiciary and counsellors to combat child trafficking.
The Centre started analysing complaints filed at police stations, court judgments and talking to police and lawyers to understand the gaps.
The Centre’s research found that children often lied about their names, refused to give details of the abuse they had suffered, and even said their traffickers were relatives out of fear for their lives.
Many children only had one counselling session during their time at the shelter – the legal minimum required – but counsellors were often not qualified and used inappropriate language, such as calling the children criminals, it found.
Dozens of new counsellors are being trained to provide regular support to more than 450 boys whose cases are in court and ensure that the children return home safely afterwards.
The police are being trained to file better complaints, while prosecutors are sharpening their skills in preparing children for the difficult process of cross-examination and giving convincing testimonies in the witness box.
Rescued children and their families also receive police protection during trials to ensure they are not threatened by traffickers who often come from the same village.
“Constant counselling is required to ensure the child is not intimidated in the witness box,” said lawyer Tushika Agarwal, who works with non-profit Prayas JAC Society to secure justice in child labour and trafficking cases.
The new approach has already proven a success.
In August, Agarwal celebrated an unusual victory. A man who trafficked five boys to work in a bangle factory, by tricking them with the promise of better schooling, was jailed for life – a first in Rajasthan.
“It was a remarkable case,” Agarwal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The trafficker had threatened the boys, warned their families and even abducted one family to ensure (the boys) did not depose in court. But they did.”
And the five boys’ testimony secured a historic win. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)