DELHI: The girl was just 14 when she was picked up from her poor village in eastern India and promised good wages as a maid in Delhi. Instead, she was forced to work as a virtual slave in a wealthy middle-class household.
When she plucked up the courage to complain to the ''placement agent'' who had found her the job, ''he beat me and then he raped me'', the girl, now 17, said. ''He said if I ever tried to run away from home, he would kill off my family and burn down my house.''
He said if I ever tried to run away from home, he would kill off my family and burn down my house.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked from rural India to work as domestic servants in middle-class homes in India's fast-growing urban areas. They are expected to work at least 15 hours a day for food, lodging and salaries well below the legal minimum monthly wage of about $125. Many end up cut off from their families, abused and treated as slaves. Some are sexually assaulted.
India erupted in outrage at the gang rape and murder last month of a young woman on a bus in Delhi. But in the same city, experts say, a vast network of child trafficking and abuse operates with society's implicit sanction and official apathy.
''The trafficking of young children, especially girls, under the garb of placement agencies, is the biggest organised crime in India today,'' said Bhuwan Ribhu, of the child rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan. ''And the worst part is, it is right there in the open, in our homes, and yet invisible.''
One of the six suspects in the gang rape case, a 17-year-old, was himself trafficked at the age of 11 from a poor village in northern India to a life of child labour in the capital, police have said. He soon lost touch with his parents.
The government says 5 million children are employed in India but activists say the real number could be 10 times that. A senior official at India's Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police, estimated that as many as 4 million children worked in domestic service nationwide and that up to 4000 placement agencies operated in Delhi alone.
But the official, who spoke anonymously, said it was often difficult to get his fellow bureaucrats to take the issue seriously because so many of them employed children at home.
One 18-year-old, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she received no money for four years of work as a maid for doctors and business people. Another said she was paid $45 a month but was essentially imprisoned for years and never allowed to telephone her family.
Mr Ribhu said traffickers often used rape - which can ruin a young woman's marriage prospects by robbing her of her ''honour'' - as a tool of control.
After two years of unpaid work, and after being raped twice by her placement agent, the 17-year-old girl from eastern India was rescued by a Bachpan Bachao Andolan activist working undercover at Delhi's railway station.
The trafficker had promised to take her home to her village but had secretly bought tickets to Mumbai, where he apparently intended to sell her into further slavery or prostitution.
A year later, the girl is still in hiding. ''The first thing I want is that man should be punished for what he did to me,'' she said. ''Then I want to see the money I am owed … The third thing is to go back home safe and sound.''
The Washington Post