When counsellor Arti Sharma met a 10-year-old boy, whose father sold him for 500 Indian rupees ($7) to work in a bangle factory, she expected tears - not a stony silence.
It took her more than a week to get the child, who had run away from the factory, to share his parents’ address so that she could send him home. But his traffickers were never punished because the boy’s case was not registered with the police.
“He was in pain, angry and needed immediate help,” said Sharma, 27, sitting in her counselling room at the Taabar shelter in Jaipur city, a tourist hub in western India, which cares for child labourers and other vulnerable children.
“I knew how essential it was to connect with him and understand what had happened but I felt ill-equipped. The boy wouldn’t speak,” she said three years later, reflecting on the improvements in child protection that have since taken place.
Jaipur city administration vowed in January to make the city of fortresses and palaces free of child labour, in a campaign which includes creating a pool of counsellors to help the police and lawyers work with victims to boost conviction rates.
The challenge is immense
Born into poverty, thousands of children - mostly boys - from the northern Indian state of Bihar have for years been trafficked to Jaipur to work as slaves making bangles and sewing fabrics for its multi-billion dollar handicraft industry.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state, which has one of India’s highest numbers of child workers - 250,000 - in a country where some 4.4 million children aged five to 14 work, census data shows.
Although the state-run district legal services authority, which offers legal aid, estimates there are usually about 200 child labour cases ongoing in Jaipur courts, there had not been a single conviction in a decade at the start of 2019.
“Prosecution of traffickers is almost impossible unless the child and his family understand that child labour is a crime,” said Suresh Kumar, executive director of Bihar-based child protection charity Centre DIRECT.
“The crime can be busted only through counselling of the child and his family, who often don’t know that their son was beaten, denied food and forced to work 12 hours. They don’t realise that some boys can barely stand when they are rescued.”
Turning hostile witnesses
Children rescued by the police were taken to shelters but with limited psychological support, they usually refused to open up to staff, police or lawyers.
The government set up a Centre for Child Protection at the Rajasthan Police Academy in 2015 to research child rights and train the police, judiciary and counsellors to combat child trafficking.
“(The police) were doing series of rescues and sending children back home but the problem was not ending,” said the Centre’s head, Rajeev Sharma.
“The rescued child was the biggest challenge for everyone.
No one knew how to interact with them or what to do to make them feel safe.” The Centre started analysing complaints filed at police stations, court judgments and talking to police and lawyers to understand the gaps.
“We realised something was missing in our efforts to end child labour,” said Sharma. “The children were turning hostile in courtrooms and traffickers were getting away with the crime.” The Centre’s research found that children often lied about their names, refused to give details of the abuse they had suffered, and even said their traffickers were relatives out of fear for their lives.
Many children only had one counselling session during their time at the shelter - the legal minimum required - but counsellors were often not qualified and used inappropriate language, such as calling the children criminals, it found.
Victory is near
Dozens of new counsellors are being trained to provide regular support to more than 450 boys whose cases are in court and ensure that the children return home safely afterwards.
The police are being trained to file better complaints, while prosecutors are sharpening their skills in preparing children for the difficult process of cross-examination and giving convincing testimonies in the witness box.
Rescued children and their families also receive police protection during trials to ensure they are not threatened by traffickers who often come from the same village.
“Constant counselling is required to ensure the child is not intimidated in the witness box,” said lawyer Tushika Agarwal, who works with non-profit Prayas JAC Society to secure justice in child labour and trafficking cases.
“(Otherwise) the narrative is fixed, with the child telling the court that they were tourists in the city and had never worked,” she said, adding that traffickers often accompanied children to court to ensure they did not incriminate them.
The new approach has already proven a success.
In August, Agarwal celebrated an unusual victory. A man who trafficked five boys to work in a bangle factory, by tricking them with the promise of better schooling, was jailed for life - a first in Rajasthan.
“It was a remarkable case,” Agarwal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The trafficker had threatened the boys, warned their families and even abducted one family to ensure (the boys) did not depose in court. But they did.” And the five boys’ testimony secured a historic win.
The future looks more promising
On the walls of Taabar are hundreds of photos of boys who spent a few months at the shelter before being sent home.
“Each boy was a challenge to connect with and we constantly had to improvise, introducing theatre, music and art to get a peek into their minds,” said Taabar’s founder Ramesh Paliwal.
“But it was not always enough. The boys were with us for just a couple of months, giving us very little time to forge a bond and get to the bottom of things.” Paliwal feels things are slowly changing as the counsellors spend more time winning the children’s trust so that they can express their trauma.
“We were dealing with the challenges alone, unsure of if we were doing the right thing,” he said. “Now, counsellors are connected and meet as a community to share their experiences. We also look for common solutions and that helps.” But psychologist Pradnya Deshpande, who trains counsellors at the Centre for Child Protection, said major hurdles remain, such as ensuring counsellors speak the children’s languages and are available at the time of rescue, which is often at night.
“The challenges are huge,” she said.
Police officer Sharma said that counsellors will be on-call 24 hours a day from next year to assist police and lawyers during and after rescues.
Counsellor Sharma already finds it easier to help her young clients since she received additional training and began sharing her experiences with other counsellors.
“Now it is different because I understand their circumstances better,” she said.
“Their trauma is unimaginable. But we are equipping ourselves better to help them heal and also seek justice.”