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Souvid Datta is an emerging writer/director, self-shooting PD, photographer and multimedia creative. This site is his portfolio space.

Born in Mumbai, 1990, Souvid grew up between India and the UK. After completing a degree at UCL (2014) in International Relations, Conflict Studies and Law he went on to freelance as a multimedia journalist and filmmaker for several years.

He has worked for clients including The Guardian, The New York Times, National Geographic, Save the Children, Vice, TIME and many more, travelling to over 50 countries covering issues of migration, conflict, the environment and women's rights. His documentary work specialises in character-led, intimate stories that investigate under-reported contemporary issues.

Since 2015, his practice has widened to incorporate narrative elements - developing original TV series, branded content and award-winning, cinematic shorts.

Today, as the Creative Director at SDFilms he works for a range of clients spanning the documentary, commercial, entertainment and music industries.

Whether through cinema, interactive exhibitions, music videos or multimedia investigations, Souvid aims to continue making meaningful visual stories that empower subjects, inform viewers and provoke constructive action.
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Vanishing Girls
of West Bengal
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A 5-YEAR INVESTIGATION INTO CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING IN INDIA
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VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED
This investigation shares five years worth of media and information gathered through field reporting, undercover work, extensive research, interviews, and collaboration. Stories within are based on real life testimonies and actual incidents, but exact names, geographic locations and identifiable details have been intentionally altered so as to ensure the safety of featured individuals and contributors as agreed.

Some materials may prove distressing with regard to reporting on sexual violence and children. As far as possible, this report has tried to adhere to industry guidelines – including those set out by UNICEF – as well as certain exceptional circumstances they outline. Where specified, visual media has been digitally altered to these ends. Readers should treat this work as constructed advocacy based on the author's personal experiences and real-life testimonies, not as traditional journalism.
63,407
were reported untraced or missing in India in 2016.
40%
of those children were from the state of West Bengal.
2 out of 3
of these missing children are girls.
PROLOGUE
The girls had been kidnapped, raped, beaten, imprisoned. Their childhoods had been stolen. Their dreams had become nightmares.

I had just finished high school, and I was volunteering in the shelter  where they lived. They were my age, or younger. They had been rescued from Sonagachi, a sprawling red-light district in Kolkata, where they had been turned into sex slaves. Talking to me, they struggled with their traumas, fighting to rebuild their lives.  

In India every year tens of thousands of children vanish. Many are girls in their teens or even younger who are sold into Asia’s sex industry—some kidnapped by traffickers, others tricked with false promises of employment or an arranged marriage. This tragedy is most acute in the state of West Bengal, on India’s northeastern border with Nepal and Bangladesh. Kolkata, the state’s capital, is home to a shocking number of illegal brothels. The Ministry of Home Affairs reported last year that more than 69,000 children were reported missing nationwide in 2014, and more than 14,000 of them disappeared from towns and villages in West Bengal.
The stories these girls confided, by turns tragic and resilient, shook me deeply, and I became determined to find out why such horrific exploitation persists. I asked my relatives and friends about Sonagachi at a family dinner. The table fell silent; sharp looks of discomfort flew at me. I pressed friends, family, neighbours, and government officials. My questions were met with disdain, ignorance, denial, and prejudice. Frustrated, I resolved to find the answers on my own.  

Sonagachi is Kolkata’s worst-kept secret. A notorious place controlled by gangs and ignored by complicit officials who benefit from the lucrative business of prostituting underage girls. I hit many closed doors. My search took three years. I sought and gained unprecedented access to the gangs that kidnap and sell girls like commodities, parents whose children vanished on their walk to school or from arranged marriages, special police units trying to stop trafficking, organisations helping rescued girls reclaim their lives, and, most of all, to the girls themselves who work as indentured prostitutes. I met and photographed many. One, known by her nickname Beauty, then a 16-year-old from Bangladesh, told me her story in wrenching detail.  

The girls had been kidnapped, raped, beaten, imprisoned. Their childhoods had been stolen. Their dreams had become nightmares.

I had just finished high school, and I was volunteering in the shelter  where they lived. They were my age, or younger. They had been rescued from Sonagachi, a sprawling red-light district in Kolkata, where they had been turned into sex slaves. Talking to me, they struggled with their traumas, fighting to rebuild their lives.  

In India every year tens of thousands of children vanish. Many are girls in their teens or even younger who are sold into Asia’s sex industry—some kidnapped by traffickers, others tricked with false promises of employment or an arranged marriage. This tragedy is most acute in the state of West Bengal, on India’s northeastern border with Nepal and Bangladesh. Kolkata, the state’s capital, is home to a shocking number of illegal brothels. The Ministry of Home Affairs reported last year that more than 69,000 children were reported missing nationwide in 2014, and more than 14,000 of them disappeared from towns and villages in West Bengal.
The stories these girls confided, by turns tragic and resilient, shook me deeply, and I became determined to find out why such horrific exploitation persists. I asked my relatives and friends about Sonagachi at a family dinner. The table fell silent; sharp looks of discomfort flew at me. I pressed friends, family, neighbours, and government officials. My questions were met with disdain, ignorance, denial, and prejudice. Frustrated, I resolved to find the answers on my own.  

Sonagachi is Kolkata’s worst-kept secret. A notorious place controlled by gangs and ignored by complicit officials who benefit from the lucrative business of prostituting underage girls. I hit many closed doors. My search took three years. I sought and gained unprecedented access to the gangs that kidnap and sell girls like commodities, parents whose children vanished on their walk to school or from arranged marriages, special police units trying to stop trafficking, organisations helping rescued girls reclaim their lives, and, most of all, to the girls themselves who work as indentured prostitutes. I met and photographed many. One, known by her nickname Beauty, then a 16-year-old from Bangladesh, told me her story in wrenching detail.  

What I discovered appalled me. I hope the photos and words that follow will amplify the voices of these girls who need to be heard by a world that has looked the other way.
1
GIRLS FOR SALE
Sold by criminals, neighbours, in-laws, boyfriends, even husbands, girls disappear into a constantly shifting web of trafficking networks. They are often imprisoned for weeks in remote and temporary locations, known as “grooming centers” or “halfway houses,” and brutally trained to become compliant sex workers.

This part of the sex-trade’s underworld has rarely, if ever, been seen. I knew I had to photograph it to show the vicious treatment these children suffer. My way in was Chintu, who had ties to a gang running a hideout for girls being sold into sex slavery. (This report is using the street names of several sources to protect their safety.) He agreed to take me inside as long as I didn’t reveal I am a reporter. He would introduce me, simply, as a friend.
GIRLS FOR SALE
Sold by criminals, neighbours, in-laws, boyfriends, even husbands, girls disappear into a constantly shifting web of trafficking networks. They are often imprisoned for weeks in remote and temporary locations, known as “grooming centers” or “halfway houses,” and brutally trained to become compliant sex workers.

This part of the sex-trade’s underworld has rarely, if ever, been seen. I knew I had to photograph it to show the vicious treatment these children suffer. My way in was Chintu, who had ties to a gang running a hideout for girls being sold into sex slavery. (This report is using the street names of several sources to protect their safety.) He agreed to take me inside as long as I didn’t reveal I am a reporter. He would introduce me, simply, as a friend.
1
Three hours east of Kolkata, the car pulls up to a house in a thick grove of rotting coconut trees. It looks abandoned. The heat is unrelenting. The air rank with the smell of garbage.

Chintu, his shirt patchy with sweat, a handgun tucked in the back of his pants, disappears into the house.
I see eight girls asleep, piled on top of each other. Chintu tells me some had been kidnapped, some bought from brothels in Bangladesh, and others came by choice. The youngest—likely just nine years old—wraps herself around an older girl. Two teenagers lock hands.
Shona meets her first client of the day. Chintu, sitting on the corner of the bed, acts as her pimp. Like many girls in India’s brothels, Shona was a child bride. She claims to be 18 years old now, but Chintu tells me her husband sold her into prostitution at the age of 14.
Chintu reaches for a chain attached to a girl. “That’s her punishment,” he tells me casually. “This girl—she’s been screaming so much. That’s what she gets. She will be there till sundown.” The girls are initiated into the sex trade through beatings, rape, and psychological torment.

The chains terrorize the girls, but their tormentors also instil fears partly based in reality: that escape will lead not to salvation but a life of stigmatization; that parents and communities will not accept daughters who have been raped; and that many police will abuse rather than rescue them.
After being made to wash up, the girls are lined up for sale before a seated brothel owner from Sonagachi and her associate, as Chintu stands beside them. Girls younger than 10 years old are usually sold with their virginity intact, fetching a premium.

*The women's faces are blurred as their identities could not be verified independently.
Later that morning, Chintu's bosses arrived. The questioned me and broke the memory card inside my camera. Luckily, the images from the morning were recorded on my first card, tucked inside my socks. Chintu convinced them to let me leave safely.

On returning to the city, I reached out to my contact at the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Kolkata Investigative Division. I handed over the images and information I'd gathered in the hope that they might aid in these girls' rescue. Several months later, at the time of writing, the AHTU had found no leads on their whereabouts.

The images I took continue to haunt me to this day.
2
GIRLS GO MISSING
As many as seven out of 10 of Sonagachi’s sex workers were once child brides, according to the charitable organizations that work with them. Most come from rural districts where poverty, poor education, and patriarchy create an environment that is exploited by traffickers and charlatans who arrange sham marriages and then sell the girls.

One particularly hard-hit area is the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. In the past three years, more than 12,200 girls have been reported missing in this district. Since many Indians have limited faith in the authorities, this may dramatically understate the real number. One study found that in some areas barely 16 percent of missing girls were reported missing.
GIRLS GO MISSING
As many as seven out of 10 of Sonagachi’s sex workers were once child brides, according to the charitable organizations that work with them. Most come from rural districts where poverty, poor education, and patriarchy create an environment that is exploited by traffickers and charlatans who arrange sham marriages and then sell the girls.

One particularly hard-hit area is the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. In the past three years, more than 12,200 girls have been reported missing in this district. Since many Indians have limited faith in the authorities, this may dramatically understate the real number. One study found that in some areas barely 16 percent of missing girls were reported missing.
2
There is a quiet liveliness to Dakshin Shibganj, from the whisper of swaying Sundari trees to the lowing of grazing cattle. But this village and others in South 24 Parganas are the scene of a terrible crime. In some areas, the police estimate 40 percent of the teenage girls have gone missing.
Seema rummages through dusty belongings on her bed. Then settles on a photograph, stroking its surface. The image is of Shampa, her eldest daughter who was 16 when she was kidnapped and sold after taking up a job with a touring dance troupe. “It’s been eight months since she was taken… [since] I lost her… I just wish I could hear her voice again.”
Krishna, 15, was with her elder sister Tumpa, 16, at the local fun fair in Basanti when they encountered a group of young men. Tumpa agreed to accompany them alone on a detour through their village on her way home, but never returned. An ongoing police investigation has connected her to trafficking rings in Pune, across the country.
Paramita Devi reaches for a photograph. It's the last one of Aparajita, who was 14 when she was wed through a broker-arranged marriage to man they had never met. Three months later, she disappeared. “It’s been three years,” Devi says. "I can still hear her laughter ringing out in the fields".
A mother and her family mourn after finding their daughter's dead body in the forest. Bithi was 4-years old, and had been raped and killed due to a dispute between neighbours in the 24 South Paraganas region.

From forced sex slavery to infanticide, honour killings and other forms of femicide such as 'sati' — many girls and women in rural Bengal go missing from normalised violence as a matter of course.

*The family members' names have been withheld at their request.
Several mothers are seen holding photographs and favourite belongings of their daughters, all of whom have been suspected kidnapped across 24 South Parganas. One girl was taken by a trusted local rikshaw driver. Another disappeared while working on her uncle's farm. Yet another was taken along with two friends on their walk home from school.

"So many of our girls have been taken", says Gourav Samanta, "How can we stop this?"
Adolescent girls, like these sharing an intimate moment, are often married to older men by poor families that welcome the chance to hand over financial responsibility for a daughter. Although child marriage is illegal in India, it remains deeply entrenched.
Although families see child marriage as sacrosanct, it has increasingly become a conduit to the sex trade. Some child brides are sold to brothels by in-laws; some are abandoned and turn to traffickers to survive; still others are duped by sham husbands who marry and sell their wives.

*Sharbari, the 13 year-old girl pictured here, is married and safe, living with her in-laws and young daughter in 24 South Parganas.
RED-LIGHT DISTRICT
3
Sonagachi, most likely India’s largest red-light district, lies in an old, decaying neighbourhood in north Kolkata run by illicit gangs and corrupt authorities. In this area, beyond reach of the law, all kinds of criminal economies thrive, such as human trafficking, drug trade, vote bartering, and construction projects marred by corruption.
3
Prostitution is legal in India, but soliciting, pimping, brothel-keeping, and other commercial activities are not. Nonetheless, multi-story brothels stack along narrow alleyways in Sonagachi. Between an estimated 11,000 and 19,000 women and girls work as sex-workers. Many are held in indentured servitude, and many are forced to service more than 20 customers a day.

It was here, in this bleak world, that I met Beauty, a 16-year-old sex worker. At the age of 12, she was forced into an arranged marriage in Bangladesh. Her husband became abusive. When she tried to escape, she was tricked and sold into prostitution by a trafficker. When we met, two years had passed since Beauty was brought across the Indian border to Sonagachi. As of 2017, she has returned home to Bangladesh, where she continued to work as a prostitute.
Prostitution is legal in India, but soliciting, pimping, brothel-keeping, and other commercial activities are not. Nonetheless, multi-story brothels stack along narrow alleyways in Sonagachi. Between an estimated 11,000 and 19,000 women and girls work as sex-workers. Many are held in indentured servitude, and many are forced to service more than 20 customers a day.

It was here, in this bleak world, that I met Beauty, a 16-year-old sex worker. At the age of 12, she was forced into an arranged marriage in Bangladesh. Her husband became abusive. When she tried to escape, she was tricked and sold into prostitution by a trafficker. When we met, two years had passed since Beauty was brought across the Indian border to Sonagachi. As of 2017, she has returned home to Bangladesh, where she continued to work as a prostitute.
Nasha is an ex-hitman and an enforcer. He works for a boss who owns many of the newest construction sites in Sonagachi and manages many of its brothels. When a customer abuses the girls in one of the brothels, he’ll take him to an isolated construction site and intimidate him.
Tiny fractures between the tin walls of Beauty’s room flashed with every lightning strike. Metal screeched, ravaged by the monsoon winds. The candle faltered, and I faced her silhouette. I asked again, more hesitantly, “What happened, Beauty—at the very beginning?” “It was just like this night,” she began, “But I was young … I was fourteen then.”
Thumps shook Beauty’s door, she tells me. A cry rang out demanding she get up. Meaty fingers pried open the panels, revealing two figures. Behind the madam was a middle-aged man, in a ragged loincloth and vest. The woman thrust him forward, telling him the girl was new, like he wanted, and snapped: “No more than three hours.”
Every detail seems fresh in her memory: How small her hands looked in his; how sharp the bristles of his beard felt; how heavily his forearms dug into hers as he clambered atop her. She tells me: “‘Relax,’” he whispered in my ear, ‘Just look at me.’”
I shadowed Beauty for weeks, trying to understand the struggles young sex workers face. “If you really want to show people my life, you cannot leave the room anymore,” she tells me. “I want you to stay, to see everything. You must see how clients treat me, how I treat them.”
Saathi, 18, another girl working in the brothel reveals the scars of her self-inflicted cuts. "It's impossible here... You waste all yourself on customers, and there's nothing left beneath... I did it because this blade, this hand - they're mine. This is my body... Even if I'm destroying myself, the rush is mine and mine alone; it helps me escape, and no-one can take that away."
Despite feuds, rivalries and distrust, a fierce sense of sorority often exists amongst women in brothels here. Each woman, having faced horrific experiences turns to the only others capable of understanding.
Beauty solicited up to 15 men a day. Most of her income went to her madam. She told me she didn’t need savings, but wanted to provide for her two sons. “I died a long time ago,” she says. “It's for them that I do this work. I hope I can at least save them from this world.”
“I have no story to share. What has happened to me has happened to so many others—and it is done,” Beauty tells me. “I live here and do these things for no extraordinary reason. I just want my boys to go to school and know a better life than my own.”
4
A RARE RESCUE, REHAB & THE LONG ROAD AHEAD
In recent years, police and charitable organizations have started trying to tackle West Bengal’s child trafficking epidemic. Education initiatives have begun to raise awareness in villages vulnerable to kidnapping and trafficking, stepped-up raids against traffickers have freed more girls, and shelters and rehabilitation programs help rescued girls.

But, still, scant progress has been made. Rescued girls are often shunned by their families and communities when they return home. Government officials lack the political will to increase enforcement. And India’s persistent caste, class, and gender prejudices stand in the way of efforts to help the disproportionately young, rural, and female victims of trafficking.
A RARE RESCUE, REHAB & THE LONG ROAD AHEAD
In recent years, police and charitable organizations have started trying to tackle West Bengal’s child trafficking epidemic. Education initiatives have begun to raise awareness in villages vulnerable to kidnapping and trafficking, stepped-up raids against traffickers have freed more girls, and shelters and rehabilitation programs help rescued girls.

But, still, scant progress has been made. Rescued girls are often shunned by their families and communities when they return home. Government officials lack the political will to increase enforcement. And India’s persistent caste, class, and gender prejudices stand in the way of efforts to help the disproportionately young, rural, and female victims of trafficking.
4
At a checkpoint on a dusty road near the border with Nepal, four weary police officers from a West Bengal Anti Human Trafficking Unit wait as the sun sets on an exhausting day. The area is a hotbed for child trafficking, but their searches had been fruitless. Then a vehicle with a doctor’s symbol appears, driven by a man they think is too young to be a doctor.
Officers quickly discover four girls in the back and drag the driver from the vehicle to question him. Haren Saha, a sub inspector leading this team, took the suspect away to the Siliguri police station. Scenes like this, of a successful rescue, are rare in India.
The girls, speaking in Nepalese, collapse into tears and begin recounting, all at once, how they were kidnapped while walking home from school. They say they were beaten. The police officers tell me they will transport the girls to a shelter home back across the border.
In 2007, state governments began to set up Anti Human Trafficking Units in police departments. Inspector Sarbari Bhattacharjee is in charge of operations in West Bengal, excluding Kolkata, and has helped rescue more than 90 girls despite operating with a team of just five.

Exhausted, returning from a raid meeting she tells me, "... I always end up thinking of my own daughter, and I imagine what it would be like for her to face the same fate as all the trafficked girls... I hope others begin feeling the same motivation to act”.
Through urban areas, awareness about missing rural girls remains limited, but things are changing. Activists - like artist Leena Kejriwal whose mural installation is pictured here - are beginning to publicly call out the systemisation of child trafficking and recognise the need to deal with it’s underlying causes: lack of rural education and the normalised subjugation of village girls at a young age.
ASI Chandra Sekar Bardhan, from the 24 South Parganas Police has been instrumental in implementing the relatively new Swayangsiddha initiative to prevent human trafficking and child marriage through village outreach programs and community participation.

“Swayangsiddha”, which means self-reliance, aims to build networks of informed local groups to report abuses, map vulnerable populations and work within communities to challenge patriarchal mindsets. One of its flagship strategies is to empower rescued girls to become community organisers speaking from personal experience and spearheading change.
Riya is the eldest of eight siblings. She had been married for a year, aged 17, when she was trafficked by her employer to Mumbai and forced to work as a sex slave for 5 months. Her family were unaware of her abduction until a police Anti-Human Trafficking Unit completed a successful rescue operation on her brothel, returning her to West Bengal in February 2017.
Riya now attends Swayangsiddha events regularly, and in co-ordination with local NGO GGBK, has formed a support community of survivors working not only to raise awareness but crucially build legal cases to hold their traffickers to account - many of whom remain local residents.
But reintegrating into her community is serious challenge, as girls like Riya faces prejudice from the crippling stigma of having been trafficked from their communities, and even their own families.
In one village, 12 rescued trafficking victims have been reunited with their families in the last 10 years. Over the last two decades many organisations have sprung up to champion child rights. Some operate shelter and rehabilitation homes for rescued trafficking victims.

Travelling through the townships of 24 South Parganas, almost every family knows of a neighbour, distant relative or old acquaintance that has been affected.
Roopa Chowdhury, 26, tells me how she was kidnapped in 2001 by a school peer’s uncle and immediately sold into Sonagachi. Due to her young age and Nepali appearance she was in high demand.

“I was 12 when they first started making me see clients… Still, people believe that sleeping with a Nepali virgin will bring luck and cure diseases… I will never know how to be at peace with what happened to me… but I have two children now… [and] I love my husband… No child should ever have to go through this… We must treat our children better. We must make the police protect our children… How can you help us?”
Tanaya Sikdar, 19, was rescued after three years working in Sonagachi during an NGO led raid in late 2013. After being married to an older man at the age of 12, she was sold to a trafficker by her in-laws after her husband’s unexpected death. She spent a year working as a domestic servant before being sold onto another man and into a Sonagachi brothel.

She recounts, “…after falling into such a bad path… I thought there would be no way back, that my life was over… how could anyone want me after all this… but somehow God has given me another chance now. I am with my family again… I cannot forget [what has happened] but I will make the most of the life I have now…”
“The problems of rehabilitating rescued girls are the same problems that allow for their trafficking in the first place” - explains Khushbu, a 16 year-old survivor, to a room full of parents and community leaders in Canning.

She continues on how newly implemented laws grant survivors eligibility for protections against re-trafficking and compensation. But, in order to qualify, families must meet extensive administrative requirements, providing a birth certificate, ‘Adhar’ card, ration card, voter ID, a police FIR from the time of the girl’s disappearance and so on.

In reality, for rural girls who are often from poor, illiterate families, this means survivors routinely fail to qualify for the mechanisms in place to support them. Under-resourced NGOs remain their only real option for help.
Beyond her role in the Swayangsiddha initiative, Khusbhu works as a seamstress having decided that returning to school will invite too many personal difficulties. Nonetheless, she remains determined to exact justice.

The gang that kidnapped her fed misinformation and extortion threats to her family. They continue to do so, as her trafficker also remains at large, along with informants in her village who leaked information on planned police raids leading to her rescue being botched several times. Working with GGBK, Khushbu is preparing a difficult legal case against criminal networks within her own community.
Today, more girls than ever before are being educated about the precursors to trafficking and being equipped with the knowledge and community resources to act preventatively. Initiatives like Swayangsiddha are expanding their reach through school-visit programs across 24 South Parganas. And new government-funded apps and online portals like Track Child 2.0 and Khoya Paya are making avenues for tracing missing children more accessible and organised.

These progresses notwithstanding, in 2016 alone, over 63,000 minors were reported missing across India. The majority are assumed to have been trafficked into indentured servitude and over 60% of them have yet to be traced, let alone rescued. A long road still lies ahead before child rights in India are truly realised.
HOW TO HELP
This project offers a glimpse into the tragedy of child-sex trafficking that haunts West Bengal and India more widely. While the problem is daunting, some nonprofit groups are working hard to aid girls who have been forced into prostitution —

Shakti Vahini
Sanlaap
Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK)
Apne Aap
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA)

Child Rights and You (CRY)
FURTHER READING
Key research and source documents for more detailed insights —
2017 Trafficking in Persons Report
US Dept of State
Sexual slavery without borders: trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation in India
International Journal for Equity in Health
Child Marriage in Rural West Bengal
Indian Journal of Development Research & Social Action
Trafficking in Persons Bill (2016 Draft)
Dept of Women & Child Development, Govt of India
'Missing Children' - Statistics / Lok Sabha
Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt of India
Study on Missing Children in West Bengal
Save the Children & Dept of Women & Child Development, WB, Govt of India
FUNDING
As a multi-year investigation, this project has received financial and editorial support from various sources since 2013. For transparency, below are listed the organisations that helped facilitate this project but retain no affiliation for this independent publication —

The Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting
National Geographic Magazine
Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography
Visura Photojournalism Grant
The Guardian
Matter
The Alexia Foundation