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A family was so devastated by a cyclone that a man offered their daughter, 17 years old, a job. Later, they learned that she was forced into the sex industry.
Seema fled to a shelter in the locality after Cyclone Amphan struck her village in West Bengal in May 2020. It was a state in eastern India. She watched her neighbours lose everything.
One family was so in dire straits that a man offered to help their 17-year old daughter get a job in the city.
“He offered them money and said, ‘You’re really poor. Let me get her employed and make her life better,’” Seema told VICE World News through an interpreter.
The man didn’t tell the family he was taking the girl to a city like Mumbai or Pune, where she’d be forced to work in the sex trade. She said that the girl, who Seema knew personally was likely still being trafficked today.
Seema, whose name was changed to protect her identity sees firsthand the dangers natural disasters pose for women through her work with Banhanmukti (a survivor collective that is affiliated with other Indian organizations that support victims of trafficking). She stated that the climate crisis is making it more difficult for people to traffick, particularly in high-risk areas like West Bengal.
“If the little bit of land they have is taken away by the sea, then what are they left with?”
Seema said traffickers are “very well clued in” to crises, so they often swoop in and exploit those affected when natural disasters strike.
More than 55 Million people around the world have a smartphone. already been forced to move from their home communities because of extreme weather, and the climate crisis is expected to displace as many as 1 billion people by 2050. Today, environmental events displace more people than violence and conflict. Women and girls in particular bear the brunt of the climate crisisVICE World News has previously reported how chores have become deadlierfor women in natural disaster–prone areas, and those fleeing from their homes are struggling to access contraception. Many will likely have to sell their bodies in order to help their families deal with extreme weather events that leave them without more than clothes.
It’s an already-documented pattern: After Cyclone Aila hit India in May 2009, the number of migrant sex workers in Kolkata’s Red Light District increased by 20-25 percent, and many of them referred to themselves as “flooded people.” According to reports, the district grows by up to 700 people every year. Sex work also increased as a “survival mechanism” in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, a Women Deliver report from this year found.
According to a UN report from 2014Many of the displaced families in Fiji faced economic hardships after the floods. Many had their children work night shifts to earn money.
A Reuters report found that one teenager, whose family migrated to the city after their home was washed away by floods, joined the sex industry and became the main provider for her family, earning up to $240 a month.
“I was around 14 years old when I joined the sex industry,” she said. “I did it only for the money. I had to buy food. I had to survive.”
West Bengal, specifically the Sundarbans—an area where three rivers meet in the Bay of Bengal—is one of the most natural disaster–prone areas in the world. Every year, there are severe storms or floods. At least seven months of the calendar are marked with extreme heat. It’s also a region where many people’s livelihoods rely on agriculture, an industry that suffers whenever floods submerge farmland in salt water and compromise soil quality. There are approximately 4.5 million people live in the Indian Sundarbans.
Some women who have fled natural disasters choose to work sex to make ends meet. It is still up for debate whether sex work can be agreed upon when there are no other options. One formerly trafficked woman living in India, who also works with Bandhanmukti, said, “Given the dire financial straits, we’re at a moment when women aren’t really going into sex work willingly.”
Kaushik Gupta, a lawyer at Calcutta High Court in West Bengal, is Kaushik Gupta. He said he’s encountered many women and girls who’ve entered the sex trade, either through exploitation or consensually, because of the climate crisis.
“Environmental issues are adding to the poverty of the already downtrodden… For a person who is a daily cultivator or labourer, if the little bit of land they have is taken away by the sea, then what are they left with?” Gupta said.
Gupta said two policies are needed: safe migration and legalized, destigmatized sex work policies—without fear of police crackdown.
Gupta says that a lot of rescue efforts, sometimes led by Western NGOs are further excluding already-exploited women. Too often they take formerly trafficked women and place them in local shelters, where they stay for up to three years—without being able to leave—learning marketable skills, such as tailoring or makeup artistry. Gupta says that not enough efforts are made to ensure that women can return home safe.
“There is a huge social stigma around sex itself,” Gupta said. The result is that women who escape sex trafficking struggle to reintegrate back home because their families and neighbours view them as “fallen women.” The most effective campaigns work with families so they can learn that sexual exploitation isn’t a woman’s fault.
“So-called First World countries are completely oblivious to these realities,” he said.
Fatima immigrated from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid after her house was destroyed by Cyclone Sidr. This Category 5 cyclone killed thousands. While she wasn’t sexually trafficked, she was routinely abused by her employers—groped and hit. She said she knows women who’ve ended up in the sex trade following Cylcone Sidr, or similar crises, often lured by “middlemen” promising them work as beauticians. Fatima stated that they were sent to cities in South Asian nations, including India, Thailand and Nepal.
“We need to raise awareness because most of the time the families don’t know what human and sex trafficking are and how they should protect themselves or their children,” said Fatima, who has seen these problems play out in her own community. She added that shame around sex has made it difficult for survivors who’ve returned home to reintegrate.
Fatima stated that one way governments can help is to equip women and girls with skills they can use in order to earn a living.
A recent report by the International Institute for Environment and Development revealed that the climate crisis is accelerating modern slavery, which can sometimes include forced sexual exploitation. The most at-risk are women, children, as well as the poorest of people.
“Natural disasters are the main reasons for all of my disasters in life.”
“Climate and development policymakers and planners urgently need to recognize that millions of people displaced by climate change are being, and will be, exposed to slavery in the coming decades,” the report says.
The survivors who spoke with VICE World News all said they’re worried sex trafficking will increase with disasters. They stated that they need adequate government support so they can continue to live in their homes and not be exploited.
Seema believes that staying in her village in West Bengal is the best way to keep in touch with her friends. She stated that it was financially impossible to move elsewhere.
“I have no money to buy land or construct my own house elsewhere,” Seema said.
The world is just beginning to learn how to help climate refugees. Even the richest countries don’t have the resources to support their internal migrants. wildfires and floods. But there’s hope: In a global first earlier this year, a man who was forced out of Bangladesh because of poor environmental conditions that affect his health won the right to settle in France—with the French court acknowledging that pollution played a major role in its decision. The decision could set a precedent as more people are forced out of their homes because of the climate crisis.
Fatima, now back with her family in Bangladesh after her husband took another loan to bring her home, said she never wants to permanently migrate from her village.
“It’s very hard, very hard,” Fatima said. “Natural disasters are the main reasons for all of my disasters in life. If I had another option in my area, I would never plan to go out or migrate.”
This story originally appeared in Vox is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism alliance that supports coverage of the climate story.
Image of the lead image courtesy Unsplash.