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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Assam's missing women and the sex trade
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Assam

Assam girls in police station
Many of the missing women end up like these alleged arrested call girls
The biggest problem in India's north-eastern state of Assam is separatist militancy. But it faces another, less well known issue. Thousands of its women, old and young, have gone missing over the past 10 years.

A recent police report says 3,184 women and 3,840 female children have gone missing in the state since 1996.

That's around two females a day on average.

The report was compiled by Assam police and their research branch, the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

The local police are far too busy, according to Assam police intelligence chief Khagen Sarmah, fighting insurgents.

"Our counter-insurgency commitments affects our normal policing duties like checking trafficking."

"Too many policemen are involved fighting the insurgents rather than following up on other crimes," Mr Sarmah said.

'Good looking women'

The Assam police recently rescued some girls working as call-girls around Delhi or used as "sex slaves" by wealthy landlords in states like Punjab and Haryana.

Most of them are from camps of internally displaced people dotting Assam, particularly the Kokrajhar district.

Hindi speaking migrants leaving Assam
Many people in Assam have fled the area due to the fighting

That area is home to nearly a quarter of a million people who were displaced in the late 1990s.

Nearly 800 people died in ethnic fighting in Kokrajhar and adjoining districts between Bodo tribes people and non-Bodo communities over a decade long period from 1994.

The police survey revealed an organised racket of "recruiters" who lured good-looking women with job offers outside the state.

"We arrested some recruiters but could never put an end to the rackets fully," said police official Anil Phukan.

The modus operandi is simple: good looking women in the displaced peoples camps are offered jobs.

The parents are paid a few thousand rupees in advance, and told the daughters will send back money once they start working.

Once they go away, that rarely happens.

Money matters

Jam Singh Lakra of the Jaipur relief camp near Kokrajhar town says: "At least 20 girls have gone away with the jobs from our camp, not to return again."

"We did identify a few recruiters and one got beaten up. But somehow the girls kept going away."

Most families are cagey about the missing girls but some do speak up.

Tuilal Mardi of Tablegaon village says "My parents accepted the offer and sent my sister away."

"They got a few thousand rupees but she never came back or sent any money."

Professor Paula Banerjee, who studies problems faced by displaced women, says: "Ethnic conflicts all over the world results in massive displacement of women and that gives rise to heavy trafficking - the situation in Assam is no different."

Local pornography

But not all the missing women of Assam have been taken out of the state.

Some show up in local pornographic films.

Assam girls going to van
Some of the girls in the trade are from better financial backgrounds

Mala Newar in Kokrajhar was known to her teachers as a "decent, well behaved girl" in school.

That was until one of them spied on her husband's mobile phone last month and found a video clip featuring Mala in the nude having sex with a stranger.

Inquiries in Kokrajhar revealed that Mala and some other local girls were used in a pornographic films racket run by a local leader.

A hotel in the town was used for the filming.

The girls were first lured into the hotel with job offers, then offered soft drinks laced with sedatives.

They were then filmed in the nude and blackmailed into doing sex scenes for the camera.

Not all missing girls in Assam are from displaced peoples camps, though.

Indrani Bora and Ritu Borgohain are smart, educated English-speaking girls from the Assamese capital, Guwahati, who got jobs in a holiday complex in Gurgaon near Delhi seven months ago.

But both say they slowly got drawn into a call girl racket run by the complex owner.

An officer who led an Assam police team to rescue Indrani and Ritu explains.

"All across hotels and resorts in places like Delhi and Bombay, you will find hundreds of girls from Assam and other north-eastern states working as waitresses or customer executives.

"Some do get drawn into the call-girl trade."

Hunger driven

The Calcutta Research Group, in its recent study on conflict-induced displacement says that the displaced people in Assam live in acute poverty.

Assam girls outside police station
Poverty is the driving force behind women opting for the trade

The situation has led the women in particular to desperately seek work elsewhere; even if the offers come from dubious people.

"This is because the government officials running the camps never created viable livelihood options," says Uddipana Goswami of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS).

Ms Goswami has worked on the displaced camps in Assam.

"Many displaced women have such exquisite craftsmanship but nobody ever tried to convert that into income alternatives," she says.

Professor Banerjee says trafficking ignores borders therefore solutions cannot be left to local agencies alone.

"This is not a local or even a national problem."

"This reflects the global reality, so intervention by international organisations may help check trafficking."

(Names of the girls have been changed to protect their identity.)

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