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An Australian data analytics company has partnered with anti-sex-trafficking campaigners to help identify villages in India where girls and young women are most at risk. By Cat Rodie.

Data mapping in the fight against sex trafficking

When a neighbour came knocking on Saidul’s door offering an arranged marriage for his 16-year-old daughter, it seemed like a good opportunity. Life in Kuldia village, in the Indian state of West Bengal, is tough. Saidul and his wife work as farm labourers. Like many parents, they want more for their children. The marriage to a businessman in Delhi, Saidul reasoned, would be a ticket out of poverty for his daughter Rabia. “I thought she would be happy, and would get at least two meals per day,” he says.

With the wedding agreed to, plans progressed. However, as the date approached, Saidul attended a Safe Village Program, an educational intervention run by the My Choices Foundation, which aims to raise awareness about human trafficking. There, he discovered that thousands of teenage girls go missing from villages just like Kuldia every year, that child marriage has devastating mental and physical consequences for girls and boys, that sex traffickers target illiterate and poor families knowing that they’re more susceptible. And he discovered that it’s illegal for girls under the age of 18 to be married.

With this information, and his wife’s support, Saidul put a stop to his daughter’s wedding. As it turned out, his instincts were right – the neighbour who had approached his family offering their daughter an attractive new life was later convicted of sex trafficking.

It’s hard to comprehend the sheer scale of sex trafficking in India. In June, a Thomson Reuters survey rated it the most dangerous country in the world for women, citing the epidemic of trafficking. Figures from the Global Slavery Index, published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation, show that India has an estimated 18.3 million people trapped in modern slavery.

The My Choices Foundation (MCF), a non-government organisation that started in Hyderabad, estimates an Indian girl is sold into sex slavery every three minutes. That’s hundreds of adolescent girls a day. Most are about 12 years old. The reality is that, despite many efforts to rescue these girls, only 1 per cent of them make it back home.

Faced with these bleak figures, MCF launched Operation Red Alert (ORA) – an initiative dedicated to the eradication of sex trafficking. The operation takes a three-pronged approach: awareness via the mass media, a national helpline and targeted prevention education where it is most needed – in the villages where sex traffickers most commonly operate.

“There was a gap in the anti-sex-trafficking effort,” says MCF founder Elca Grobler. “Nobody was looking at prevention tactics in a systematic way.”

It was the third prong, the outreach effort, that posed a problem for ORA. With more than 600,000 villages in India, it would be virtually impossible to roll the program out nationwide. Looking back, Grobler says it was a needle-in-a-haystack situation. They had to get to the people most in need of educating, but had no idea how to find them.

The solution came from an unexpected place – Australia’s largest data analytics firm, Quantium. Working pro bono, the company set out to leverage a wealth of publicly available data from Indian’s census to zero in on those most vulnerable to sex trafficking within the country’s population of 1.36 billion people.

ORA identified a set of key indicators that make villages particularly susceptible to sex trafficking, which include illiteracy, underemployment, infrastructure, an adolescent female population and school dropout rates.

Sudha Upadhyayula is head of operations at ORA. She says that with help from analysts at Quantium, ORA ran these indicators against the census data to create a vulnerability score ranging from one to five for each village. “A score of five means that the village is extremely vulnerable to trafficking,” she explains. “Trafficking is likely to be happening in those villages.”

Armed with a list of the country’s most vulnerable villages, ORA was able to direct its efforts and resources strategically.

“Using data mapping has magnified our efforts. Without it we would have been doing our work blindfolded,” says Grobler.

Since 2014, ORA has run Safe Village training sessions, along with its partners, in more than 2000 villages, educating as many as 912,663 people about sex trafficking.

But this approach raised its own questions around whether the choice to target the most vulnerable villages first was effective. To answer this, ORA needed a way to collect data about the outcomes of the program from remote villages across India. In the past, MCF collected this crucial information the old-fashioned way – on paper and an Excel spreadsheet. Quantium developers instead built a custom data management system, dubbed SafeTracker, which enabled core workers in the field to instantly upload data via a mobile phone app.

It’s not revolutionary in a technological sense, but SafeTracker has had an enormous impact on ORA. The app has more than 250 data fields. It can capture both qualitative data – such as the reactions locals had during an information session – and quantitative data – such as the number of village girls that have dropped out of school.

“The app makes it very easy for field workers to upload data, which means that the data is more accurate,” says Upadhyayula. The upshot is that it’s easy for MCF to see an accurate snapshot of any village across the country at a glance.

Crucially, the reams of data collected allow ORA to build a risk profile for each village. This can be used to better understand the specific circumstances that make some girls and young women vulnerable to trafficking via “push” factors. Program director Vivian Isaac, who spends about 70 per cent of his time in the field, says fully grasping the significance of the push factors is a vital step in reducing trafficking.

“There is a strong correlation between domestic violence and sex trafficking. Domestic violence is a sign of an unhealthy household – girls and young women who are exposed to domestic and family violence are much more likely to be trafficked,” Isaac says, laying out the traffickers’ formula. Village recruiters, known as “spotters”, look out for girls who can be easily manipulated into leaving voluntarily. “When domestic violence happens in these villages everybody knows about it – it’s not a secret in the way that it is in a more urban environment,” Isaac explains. “These spotters hang around the homes where domestic violence is taking place and wait for the girls to fall into their trap.”

There are other push factors, too. Many young girls are given up for arranged marriages by their families in villages with high unemployment rates. In many cases, a father believes accepting the offer of marriage will be a good thing for his daughter and her quality of life. Many of these fathers have no idea that marriage under the age of 18 is illegal. According to research commissioned by MCF, nine out of 10 fathers in India want to be “good fathers”.

It’s easy to see how the false promises of a sex trafficker would be appealing to girls and young women, or their families – an exciting job opportunity in a big city such as Delhi, a path out of the misery. But there is no job opportunity for the girl – just more misery. “She is trafficked. She ends up in sex slavery being brutally raped and beaten every day,” Isaac says.

Sex trafficking of women and girls, and human trafficking, is by no means an issue that is limited to India. It’s the fastest growing crime in the world, according to the United States Department of Defense. An estimated 25 million people have been trafficked into forced labour, and sexual exploitation is the most common form.

Last month, police arrested a New South Wales woman at Sydney airport on human trafficking charges as she attempted to leave the country. The day before, police in Canberra raided two brothels in the city, investigating allegations that women had been trafficked into Australia to perform sexual services. One woman detained claimed she was subject to a $50,000 debt by traffickers. With parliament resuming next week, the Modern Slavery Bill 2018 – introduced before the winter break – will back be on the agenda. Miner and anti-slavery advocate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has said the bill doesn’t go far enough, calling for an independent commissioner.

In India, though, MCF’s data-driven approach to tackling sex trafficking is saving lives. Grobler says girls are using the ORA helpline, asking for assistance from the group to stop their marriages and reporting abuse.

“We have a long way to go. We will not be able to see a decline in just one generation,” she says. “It will take the commitment and courage of everyone involved to work together purposefully and strategically to ensure we can keep all our girls safe.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Trafficking spotlight". Subscribe here.

Cat Rodie
is a Sydney-based journalist.