NEW DELHI — She was just 14 years old when she was picked up from her poor village in eastern India and promised good wages as a maid in New Delhi. Instead, she was forced to work for free as a virtual slave in a wealthy middle-class household.
When she plucked up the courage to complain to the “placement agent” who had found her the job, “he beat me and then he raped me,” the girl, now 17, said in this capital city. “He said if I ever tried to run away from home, he would kill off my family and burn down my house.”
Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked from rural India to work as domestic servants in middle-class homes in India’s fast-growing urban areas. They are expected to work at least 15 hours a day for food, lodging and salaries well below the legal minimum monthly wage of about $125. Many end up cut off from their families, abused and treated like slaves. Some are sexually assaulted.
India erupted in outrage at the gang rape last month of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in the same city, experts say, a vast network of child trafficking and abuse operates with society’s implicit sanction and official apathy. As India strives to become a modern and developed nation, the problem serves as a reminder of the exclusion of a vast swath of the population from the benefits of a rising economy and the broad indifference of many middle-class Indians to the rights of the poor.
“The trafficking of young children, especially girls, under the garb of placement agencies is the biggest organized crime in India today. And the worst part is, it is right there in the open, in our homes, and yet invisible,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, of the child rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
One of the six suspects in the gang-rape case, a 17-year-old, was himself trafficked at age 11 from a poor village in northern India to a life of child labor in the capital, where he worked in a roadside restaurant and as a bus driver’s assistant, police have said. He soon lost touch with his parents.
Many middle-class Indians believe they are helping poor families by giving their children work. But according to municipal law in New Delhi, which has enacted some of India’s strictest child labor laws, they should be jailed. Employing people under the age of 18 in a hazardous job, as domestic service is defined, has been a non-bailable offense since 2009.
But the law is widely flouted, said Ribhu, who added that on rare occasions police carry out “rescue operations” of underage servants after complaints from parents or activists.
“Almost all of the domestic maids are either minors, or started work as maids before they were 18,” Ribhu said.
There has never been a systematic attempt to determine the scale of the problem. The government says 5 million children are employed in India, but activists say the real number could be 10 times that. A senior official at India’s Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police, estimated that as many as 4 million children work in domestic service nationwide and that up to 4,000 placement agencies operate in New Delhi and its suburbs alone.
But the official said it was often hard to get his fellow bureaucrats to take the issue seriously because so many of them employ children at home.
Sometimes, placement agencies demand a one-time fee for supplying servants, a sum often docked from the girls’ wages by their employers. Other times, the employer pays the wages directly to the placement agency, which might give a portion of that money, or none at all, to the girl.
One 18-year-old interviewed said she received no money for four years of work as a maid for doctors and business people. Another, whose statement forms part of a court case filed by activists in an attempt to force New Delhi authorities to regulate the industry, said in her testimony that she was paid $45 a month but was essentially imprisoned for years and never allowed to telephone her family.
When she complained to the placement agent, she said, he raped her. Ribhu said traffickers often use rape — which can ruin a young woman’s marriage prospects by robbing her of her “honor” — as a tool of control.
“I could not bear the pain and fell unconscious,” she said. “When I awoke, I found myself in a pool of blood. When I came out crying, he told me he would sell me off and never send me home if I didn’t keep quiet.”
Activists have made progress only by taking such cases to Indian courts. New Delhi’s high court has led the way by ordering authorities to raise the minimum age for domestic service and requiring placement agencies to be registered. But the fine for failing to register ranges from just 50 cents to $5, and monitoring of registered agencies is nonexistent, activists say.
After two years of unpaid work, and after being raped on two occasions by her placement agent, the 17-year-old girl from eastern India was rescued by a Bachpan Bachao Andolan activist who was working undercover at New Delhi’s railway station.
The girl was at the station because the trafficker had promised to take her home to her village but had secretly bought tickets to the teeming commercial capital, Mumbai, where he apparently intended to sell her off into a life of further slavery or prostitution.
A year later, the girl is still in New Delhi, hiding from the trafficker. Small and shy, with her hair tied back in a bun and covered in a patterned scarf, she has an unassuming manner that masks a determination to see her tormentor put behind bars.
“The first thing I want is that man should be punished for what he did to me,” she said. “Then I want to see the money I am owed in my hand. The third thing is to go back home safe and sound.”