Monday June 17, 2019

Growing Runner Beans to counter Child Marriage and Trafficking in West Bengal

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FILE - Young girls pose as they tend to vegetables they are growing as part of the Girls’ Project that teaches land literacy and helps prevent trafficking and early marriage in Charmahatpur village in West Bengal state, India, Feb. 13, 2017. VOA

For a teenager, Sarjana Biswas has rather modest ambitions: finish school, go to college and become a government healthcare worker in her village.

But for young girls like Biswas in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, even these would have been impossible dreams just a few years ago in a district plagued by a high rate of school dropouts, early marriage and human trafficking.

Thanks to a state program to keep young girls in school with cash incentives, coupled with efforts by land rights advocacy group Landesa to teach land literacy, girls like Biswas are daring to dream and plan for better futures.

“My sister got married when she was 15 years old. I didn’t want to get married that young,” said Biswas, 17, as she examined runner beans in the small vegetable garden that she helps tend to at the village community center.

“I have learned that girls should not get married so young, that we can also own land and cultivate what they want, earn and not be dependent on anyone,” she said.

Cultivate crops

Nearly 70 girls like Biswas, aged 11 to 18, are enrolled in Landesa’s Girls’ Project that teaches them how to cultivate a small vegetable garden in their family plot.

Alongside, they learn about the importance of education, the problems of early marriage, the benefits of nutritional food, financial literacy, and their rights – including land ownership.

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Partnering with the state, the program has reached more than 48,000 girls in over 1,000 villages in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, helping reduce child marriage and school dropout rates, and preparing the girls to stake their claim to their own piece of land some day.

Bordering Bangladesh, the area is largely populated by poor farmers and migrant workers, and is a hotbed of trafficking. Young women and men are tricked into traveling elsewhere in India and to the Gulf region to be commercial sex workers.

West Bengal accounted for more than a third of India’s trafficking victims in 2016, official data showed.

Girls who have been through the project, which was launched in 2011, are more likely to stay in school, marry later, and have an asset in their name, said Sumit Gupta, chief revenue officer in Nadia district where Charmahatpur village is located.

“These issues are all linked to poverty, and landlessness is the biggest indicator of poverty. So using land literacy and land ownership to address these issues is a practical approach, and it has worked,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We want to see these girls be independent and live with dignity. For that it’s important they know their rights and the importance of land ownership,” he said.

Small plots

West Bengal has a checkered history in land reforms. It was among the first states in India to enact a land reforms law as early as 1955, to give land to poor tenant farmers and to impose ceilings on land holdings.

Yet it has been slow to implement measures to redistribute land. About 70 percent of the state’s rural households do not own land, higher than the national average of 56 percent.

The Girls’ Project, which is being scaled up to reach 1.25 million girls, aims to bridge the gap for women.

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Girls learn to grow vegetables or fruits – even timber – in a corner of their family plots, so they can supplement their meals, as well as add to the family income, or set aside some money by selling some of the produce.

Their efforts are complemented by federal and state schemes for poor adolescent girls. The girls receive 750 rupees ($11) a year from the state toward their education, and 25,000 rupees ($380) on turning 18 if they are still in school and unmarried.

Despite a law banning girls from being married before the age of 18, nearly half India’s girls are married before that age, according to UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s agency.

Staff at the community center have stopped about half a dozen child marriages in recent years, said Pinaki Haldar, Landesa’s state director.

“Girls, particularly in rural areas, are seen as a burden, and are married early because the dowry that is demanded of the parents rises with older girls,” he said.

“Educating girls on land impacts their thinking, their life, and builds their confidence. Even if she doesn’t get much of an education, she learns to be independent, and also gains some value at home,” he said.

My home, my land

State chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who won an election in 2011 largely on the platform of supporting the rights of farmers and villagers over land, is a champion of land rights.

She introduced the ‘Nijo griha, nijo bhoomi’ (my home, my land) scheme that allocates plots of about 2,200 sq feet (204 sq meters) to each landless rural family, so they can build a small home and cultivate the rest of the land to sustain themselves.

More than 200,000 families have benefited so far. Some have daughters who have been educated about land rights and farming.

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At the community center in Charmahatpur, about a dozen girls who have finished school for the day inspect cabbages, beans and spinach growing in the small garden in the back. They chatter and giggle as they pull out weeds and check for pests.

It took a while to convince parents about the benefits of the program, said Dilwara Mondal, the supervisor.

“Earlier, parents would stand by the door or peep through the window to make sure we weren’t corrupting their daughters,” she said.

“Now they send their daughters willingly. They can see the difference it’s made to them, and to their lives.” (VOA)

Next Story

Thailand Toughens Rape Laws with Rise in Child Sex Trafficking

Prison terms for rapists in positions of authority over their victims, such as relatives and teachers, also were raised by a third

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FILE - The shackled legs of suspected human traffickers are seen as they arrive for their trial at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, March 15, 2016. VOA

Thailand has toughened its penalties for sharing photos and videos of sexual assault as the country grapples with a reported rise in child sex trafficking and a growing crop of “webcam centers” to exploit it.

But rights groups say most of Thailand’s neighbors have yet to toughen their laws to tackle online child abuse in an increasingly wired region, and that even the Thai legal update may leave some troubling trends largely unchecked.

“It’s great, what they’ve done. It’s really good in terms of the legal framework. That’s fine. But there still needs [to be] some other reforms to be done, especially in relation to livestreaming,” said François-Xavier Souchet, Thailand country manager for Terre des Hommes, a child rights group.

The changes took effect Monday and double the prison terms for convicted rapists — which mostly range up to 20 years — who record their assaults and share the material. They raise prison terms by a third for rapists who record their assaults to exploit victims.

Prison terms for rapists in positions of authority over their victims, such as relatives and teachers, also were raised by a third.

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FILE – An employee from the Department of Special Investigation sorts through evidence from a massage parlor after police raided the premises because of suspicions of underage trafficking and prostitution, in Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2018. VOA

Rights groups widely consider the number of reported rapes only a small fraction of the actual number, given the stigma victims can face and the pressures they often come under to stay silent.

In April, though, the Royal Thai Police Crime Suppression Division singled out rape as the “No. 1 public enemy” in the country. Citing police figures, the Bangkok Post said reported rape cases had dropped from 3,240 in 2015 to 2,109 the following year, but picked up again to 2,535 in 2017.

Human trafficking

Also in 2017, in a report on the latest trends in human trafficking into Thailand from its neighbors, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified the trafficking of children for webcam sex shows as an emerging problem.

At the report’s launch, the UNODC said demand for sex with children was a growing driver of human trafficking across the Mekong region and that it had recently noticed webcam centers exploiting children moving from the Philippines to Thailand.

“Sadly, it has been part of a larger trend in the region,” the UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, told VOA this week.

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FILE – Prosecutors from Thailand, Japan and other countries talk at a summit on sex trafficking, Sept. 28, 2016, in Honolulu. They called the scourge of sex trafficking a form of modern-day slavery. VOA

“Now they have so many cases about the use [of] the webcam,” agreed Jaded Chaowilai, director of Thailand’s Women and Men Progressive Movement, which helps rape victims.

“The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is an ongoing issue,” said Damian Kean, spokesman for ECPAT International, a child advocacy group based in Bangkok.

“While we have no evidence to suggest that it is on the rise, we do know that certain manifestations of this crime are increasing,” he said, “particularly sexual exploitation by travelers and tourists as Thailand’s tourism industry flourishes; online child sexual exploitation as internet coverage improves; and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes as neighboring countries suffer humanitarian crises.”

Child exploitation

Many of the cases of livestreaming, Kean added, “are facilitated by those in the child’s circle of trust, including often parents.”

The newly enacted legal amendments help address both problems by stiffening prison terms for rapists who record and share the abuse and have authority over the victim.

But rights groups worry that the law’s failure to specifically address livestreaming, where the abuse is not actually recorded, may prove a loophole for getting out of the tougher penalties.

“Once you stop the, I don’t know, Skype session or the Facebook Live, it’s just gone, it’s just gone,” said Souchet, of Terre des Hommes.

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FILE – People walk in the red light district in Pattaya, Thailand, April 10, 2009. At the time, the U.S. put Thailand on its human trafficking watch list, accusing it of not doing enough to combat trafficking. VOA

He worries that the people who watch the shows — and often direct the abuse — also may fall through the cracks.

“The person who is watching, who is kind of ordering the abuse and directing the abuse sometimes, and opening this kind of livestream to other people for … financial purposes, right? This guy, his responsibility, can he be charged against rape as an accomplice? This is not clear, because there’s no … direct physical abuse from his side. So that’s a legal challenge,” he said.

While Thailand is not alone in the region in toughening its rape laws — Myanmar in March upped the possible prison term for the rape of children under 12 to life — it is still an outlier.

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“Thailand remains somewhat exceptional in this regard,” said Douglas. “Positively, governments in the region are taking the issue of online child exploitation more seriously and they are cooperating on cross-border cases, although it is not enough and tends to be reactive.”

Souchet said he recently heard from a victims shelter in Thailand that is concerned more pedophiles active in the country are moving to Laos to evade capture, and that authorities in Myanmar increasingly are worried about becoming “another Thailand” for child sex offenders as the country opens up. Combating the problem “should be a regional effort,” he said. (VOA)