“We have had many cases where we tracked and rescued the girls from Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. We also found that there were some boys in these villages, who were trapping these girls, and trafficking them to North India,” said Rishi Kant, a co-founder of Shakti Vahini, an organisation that rescues women from gender based violence.

Kant said instances of trafficking and child marriage have shot up in the Sunderbans area after the pandemic. He was also involved in the formulation of the Swayangsiddha project launched in Jalpaiguri and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal in 2016. This was aimed towards empowering children with the awareness to protect themselves in case of violation of their rights. By the end of the scheme’s second year, around 1,000 girls had been rescued and 3,000 perpetrators were arrested.

According to Kant, both the Covid pandemic, followed by Cyclonic storms Amphan and Yaas that hit West Bengal, had a scarring impact on the families living in the remote islands of the Sunderbans. “Livelihood has completely gone. All the children who were in school, were not able to go to school anymore.” Due to the three consecutive waves of the pandemic, schools in West Bengal were closed and reopened periodically three times between 2020 and 2021.

A report by the United Nations has revealed that the Amphan led to the displacement of 2.4 million people across India, mostly from West Bengal and Odisha. “Teachers did not understand the trauma the children were facing,” elaborates Kant, adding “many of these children fell into the trap of the dark web.”

“Under lockdown, the children were using Facebook and befriending strangers, especially from Northern and Southern parts of India. Many children were falling prey to these criminal elements of the dark net. These men proposed to marry these girls,” recalled Kant, adding that the girls were merely 12-14 years old and “over 300 cases of child marriages were reported in this area.”

According to Kant, in the interior areas of the Sunderbans’ islands and the North and South 24 Parganas, there was a disconnect with the school teachers. “The children started contacting strangers over the internet, because they were living in isolation. Because of the natural disasters, Covid and loss of livelihood, families were in trouble and the young girls sought friendships with strangers. That was the trap.”

Kant said that the men who approach these young girls through the internet are aged between 18-25 years. Many girls, barely coming of adult age, also faced threats of releasing their private photographs on the internet.

Tapashi Mondal, an activist based in Sunderbans, said that while many school going boys were bought phones by their parents, the girls were told to “borrow the phones when they need it”. Mondal has been engaged in social work in the Sunderbans since 2011 and began with arranging books and stationary for school children. She is now deeply immersed in conducting workshops and camps for the adolescent boys and girls at Piyali in the Sunderbans. She was awarded the Kutchina Krritika Fellowship in 2018, an honour given to women from disadvantaged sections who drive social change.

Mondal said now, all the children have access to a cell phone and “in many cases, even schools were equipping their students with phones for online classes.” Mondal told The Citizen, that she has even “come across cases where the children have threatened committing suicide if they were not bought a phone.” She said there has been a negative impact as these children have unchecked access to the internet.

Elaborating on the ill-effects of internet access in such regions, Kant added that he observed that many parents do not understand the gravity of the issue, as there was a disconnect from civil society. Because of the lockdown people were not able to leave their homes, and “the only thing that was available was the internet. These young girls were online seeking mental peace, not understanding that it was in fact a trap.”

“These are adolescent girls, their sexuality is developing, and the internet is bringing them closer to sexual exposure. Once the exploitation starts, it is never ending. It goes on until the girl says something,” said Kant. He recalled a case, where a young girl was asked by an unknown man on the internet that she had befriended about when she would be taking her bath. Once the girl told him the time, he video called her when she was in the washroom, and filmed her. He then threatened her, saying that he would circulate the video clip on the internet if she did not pay him money.

Due to the economic disasters that have hit the families located in the islands of Sunderbans the families tried to push their adolescent girls, aged 14-15 year old, into marriage. “Wherever there is human trafficking,child marriages are rising. When there are no jobs, the parents themselves push the girls into marriage,” explained Kant. These marriages were conducted quickly and without background checks on the boys and their families. “Many of these girls have reported that they are facing problems in their marriages,” added Kant.

Mondal, who has spent years working exclusively with the people of the Sunderbans added that poverty is also leading to domestic violence. “These climate disasters have had a deep impact on the children, as most of the families here are daily wage earners. So when all work stopped during Covid, these families came under a lot of financial pressure.”

This is bound to have an impact on the children of the household, said Mondal explaining that the financial pressure has triggered much turmoil in the families “and the brunt of this is faced mostly by the girl children.” She noted that sexism is still deeply entrenched in the society of Piyali. Parents feel that if they marry the girl off “and get it over with,” their financial problems will ease.”

Many girls have been married off to much older men as a result of this mentality. “This is evident if you see the number of students in the schools now,” explained Mondal, “the number of children attending school has dropped drastically in Champahati and Piyali. Earlier 40-45 students were enrolled, now only seven to ten show up for exams. Boys have dropped out to go to work, while girls have been married off.” She recalls that even after cyclone Aila, the number of child marriages in Bali of Sunderbans had shot up.

According to Kant, education and awareness are the only ways to reverse this exploitation of children, “we are mopping the floor when the tap is running. It is crucial that school teachers have to take responsibility, panchayats and parents have to be taught the importance of internet safety.”

“The children are certainly using the phones to attend classes, but outside school hours, the phone presents problems for these children,” added Mondal.

“We have failed,” said Kant, “I accept that we have failed to protect our children in the Sunderbans. This is a failure of civil society. That is why our children are being subjected to all kinds of violence.”

Data released by Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, an NGO based in the South 24 Parganas revealed that the number of child marriages rose from 68, recorded before the pandemic, to 159 cases after. The GGBK had undertaken reparations in over 70 villages, after the Amphan struck West Bengal.

Kant too has encountered several cases in Bengal where young girls have been lured in by men who made false claims of owning a land and property, “it is very easy in Bengal to fake these things.” He added that he has seen such cases in Sunderbans, the North and South 24 Parganas, Midnapore and other districts as well. “We have to reach out to the interior areas. We cannot expect to sit in Calcutta and educate these children through Zoom calls. We have to reach out to that last girl who may be subjected to violence… Exploitation is happening while we are talking,” he said, “it is not only for the government to do this, it is us, as a civil society who have to fight this.”

In December of 2020, the National Human Rights Commission of India had asked that all states set up round the clock anti-trafficking helplines, with focus on railway stations, bus depots and remote villages. “The police department and the West Bengal government were certainly trying to reach out to various schools through the Swayangsiddha initiative. But the campaign was not reaching everywhere. It was restricted to schools in some pockets. But it needs to reach the interiors, right up to the Hemnagar coastal areas,” said Kant.

As a social worker and activist in the Sunderbans, Mondal has tied up with organisations and NGOs to conduct awareness camps, She has helped, get rations and amenities for victims of the cyclones, and create educational opportunities for the children there. In October 2021 Mondal and her team built a library in Piyali village for the students.

Mondal said she has seen a significant change in the mindsets of the youngsters in Sunderbans, “I used to fight for them before, now I see them fighting for their own rights.”

She says that there have been instances where young girls have refused to get married, since they are not of age yet, “they are threatened to go to the police if they are forced. In fact cases of sexual harassment on the streets have also reduced!” She recalled that some boys also faced discrimination for being “effeminate” and wouldstay indoors out of shame. “But now they understand that it is a matter of shame for the people who discriminated against them and that they are fine just the way they are. These changes in their mindsets are the real gains in our endeavours,” Mondal told The Citizen.