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Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh, India - As evening falls, the girls get restless. Huddled in a group, some go very quiet, while others become agitated. The large hall of residence fills with an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.
One of the girls breaks down as she recounts her experience at the Hyderabad brothel she was rescued from just a few days ago: For two weeks she says she was kept sedated and offered to clients in a comatose state before she was allowed a meal.
As the horrific details of her ordeal unfold, the room collapses into turmoil. Overcome with emotion, 14-year-old Jyothi is wheezing and struggling to draw her breath because she’s crying so hard;16-year-old Kavya is also inconsolable; Vijayalaxmi is banging her head on the wall, and other girls are shaking, swaying back and forth. All are crying. One account triggers another. Some mutter to themselves while others jostle to be heard.
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The scenes at this transit home for girls in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, India, are harrowing. Girls as young as 13 are brought here for temporary refuge after they have been rescued from sex traffickers and brothels in big cities like Hyderabad and Mumbai. Each has suffered varying degrees of abuse, torture, slavery and inhumane treatment.
The home, already packed to capacity, sees a new arrival every few days as the state battles to tackle large-scale child sex trafficking.
Andhra Pradesh accounts for nearly half of all sex trafficking cases in India, the majority involving adolescent girls. According to police estimates, a shocking 300,000 women and girls have been trafficked for exploitative sex work from Andhra Pradesh; of these just 3,000 have been rescued so far.
The state is relatively prosperous, ranking fourth in terms of per capita GDP in India, but it is also home to some of the poorest people in the country.
Organized sex trafficking is so entrenched that traffickers have penetrated the remotest villages, preying on vulnerable young girls from impoverished households and pushing them into sex work and slavery across the country. Promises of marriage, employment and even food are used to lure girls from their homes, only for them to find themselves forced into the sex trade.
Sunitha was befriended by her next-door neighbor, who promised her a better job in Hyderabad. She was sold to a handler who sold her to a brothel in the city. Sunitha says she was forced to have sex in return for coupons: Only after she had served 250 clients was she allowed to redeem her coupons for an adequate meal.
The nature of some of the sexual assaults carried out on girls is so graphic that the details are unsuitable to print. It is not surprising that when rescued girls are referred to the transit home their minds and bodies are in deep trauma.
"Some take days, some take even months before they speak out," says Ramamohan NVS of HELP, a local NGO that runs the transit home. "We have situations where girls saved from brothels rip their clothes off at night and demand sex and alcohol."
For some, the trauma is so severe that the impact on their mental health is irreversible: Lakshmi has not spoken a word since she arrived, weeks ago, workers at the home say. She cowers at the sight of strangers and has regressed to using the mannerisms of someone much younger.
In 2005, India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) estimated that 44,000 children go missing in the country every year. Of these,11,000 are never traced. A 1998 report noted that children constituted more than 40% of those trafficked into sexual exploitation in the country.
One study in India - by the EPCAT campaign to end child sex trafficking - found more than three in 10 trafficked children suffered from HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other gynecological problems.
Sudha, just 16, the mother of a three-year-old, and is being treated for an STI. She says she was forced into prostitution by her husband, in order to repay the debt he owed a relative - he had borrowed money to buy a new motorbike. "He will only have me back if I continue to earn money for him by selling sex," she says.
The overwhelming majority of girls pushed into exploitative sex work come from rural pockets of India hit by extreme poverty. Social structures and deep-rooted gender bias mean they are the poorest, most disadvantaged people even within their own communities. Girls usually drop out of school long before their brothers; they are assigned household chores and often look after their siblings while their parents go out to work.
In many cases, girls are simply abandoned to the care of neighbors by migrant parents who leave for seasonal work in the cities. Barely seven, Sravani was found wandering on the streets of a local town without food or water after her parents abandoned her and set off for Hyderabad to find work. She is now in a shelter.
"It is not just poverty, but an overall neglect and discrimination of girls that makes them most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse," says Bhavani SV of Plan India.
The charity is supporting the recovery and rehabilitation of rescued girls in transit homes. They are encouraged to continue their education and are offered training to secure decent employment or set up their own business.
In the baking unit at Prakasam's transit home, recent arrivals Meena and Vasanthi prepare dough for buns under the watchful eyes of supervisor Raji. The trainees sneak a smile as they pull hot loaves of bread out of the oven.
"Our bread is already very popular in the nearby villages," says Meena. "I hope one day I will get job in a large bakery in town."
Yards away, a crash course in beauty treatment is in progress. A trainer is holding an eager audience to rapt attention as she demonstrates the basics of make-up. There is much discussion over choices of eye-shadow and shades of lip gloss.
For a few moments, the girls can forget their circumstances, and revert to being playful youngsters. Some are hopeful it could mean a new life. "I want to be a beautician. This is my favorite course," says Bajiyamma.
Vijayalaxmi, however, is struggling. Her moods swing from optimism to despair. Aged about 20, she is among the eldest in the group, and is and also most afraid for her future. Vijayalaxmi has spent over a year at the transit home and is still waiting for her family to accept her back. "I have given up all hopes," she says.
Vijayalaxmi's fears reflect a grim reality: The majority of girls rescued from sex work are never accepted by their families and communities. Even the few who are reclaimed face stigma and prejudice which make it almost impossible for them to regain a normal life. The girls suffer from a total loss of self-esteem. Most are consumed with guilt for living an 'immoral' life as sex worker in a society governed by traditional sanctions and customs.
Often unwanted and unwelcome, victims find themselves trapped in life-long destitution and slavery. Sometimes the only option is to return to their traffickers. Nearly eight out of 10 victims are forced back on to the streets and into brothels after being rehabilitated, according to Andhra Pradesh police.
Meanwhile, their traffickers go mostly unpunished, keeping up a thriving sex trade. Although hundreds of girls are rescued from brothels every year, police say the conviction rate of perpetrators under the national Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act is low.
This leaves many sex workers helpless and lonely, and for the most there is no way to break the cycle. Most do not even exist on official records, leaving them without identity papers and excluding them from the little welfare support the state can afford, such as discounted food rations.
Sujatha sells sex on the street to survive. She is illiterate, HIV positive and lives with her nine-year-old daughter on the outskirts of Rajahmundry. When she went to the local government office to apply for a ration card she was refused on the grounds that she did not have a permanent address. “I was told that I could earn more with extra hours of sex work and didn’t really need subsidized rations,” she says.
Kandula Durgesh, Andhra Pradesh’s state legislative council member, agrees there is a long way to go before the sex workers are able to access basic entitlements guaranteed by welfare schemes. “Sensitization should start from legislature, policy and administrative levels,” he says.
The rehabilitation support for sex workers is virtually non-existent and most are either unable to access it or have rejoined the sex trade by the time any support becomes available.
Only sex workers with HIV/AIDS like Sujatha are entitled to a monthly financial support of less than $4 provided by the state government. But even those who qualify rarely get it.
Challenges like these make the task of organizations like Plan International and its partner grassroot NGOs extremely challenging.
“Our efforts are aimed at not just rehabilitating rescued girls but also at preventing children being forced into sex work through trafficking. We cannot win this battle unless government, civil society and communities are actively mobilized to tackle this inhuman trade,” says Bhavani.
At the transit home in Prakasam, darkness has set in, a discomforting and silent evening replacing the emotionally charged afternoon. Jyothi has developed a fever and is being nursed by two girls as she lies on a floor mat. A few others sit motionless with their backs to the wall.
Vijayalaxmi is still on edge. Tears rolling down her face, she keeps repeating: "I want to go home." Her parents have again refused to take her back.