Now, a disturbing trend is emerging: the number of eloping girls is rising alarmingly, compared with the number of boys. Data show the Indian Railways (IR) rescued 1,037 underaged runaway girls in the first six months of this calendar year. They were not being trafficked or kidnapped. Nor were they accidentally separated from their families during travel. They simply ran away from their residences. The railway data is important as runaways prefer to catch a train, instead of a bus, say officials. The chances of being caught are considered lower in railways, they add.
In 2013, the number of runaway girls rescued by the IR was just 513, against 3,266 runaway boys who were rescued. By 2017, the number of runaway girls rescued in railway stations has shot up to 1,699, while the boys rescued in the same category remained almost the same — at 3,594.
There are no clear answers to this baffling trend. Experts ET magazine spoke to say this could be because minor girls are becoming more assertive. “The exposure of internet and easy availability of smartphones in rural areas and small towns are also contributing to the trend of more girls fleeing their homes. They usually get attracted to the big-city lifestyle depicted in films and TV serials,” says Vishwajeet Ghoshal, director of Prayas JAC Society.
The non-government organisation has set up child kiosks in eight railway stations, including New Delhi, Nizamuddin, Patna, Samastipur and Motihari to help rehabilitate rescued girls.
Most runway girls who were caught were with their boyfriends, say railway officials and civil society activists. Eloping and living together can be consensual, but the boyfriend will go to jail if the accompanying girl is below 18 years. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, ensures that. The rescued girls are handed over to the parents. In certain cases, parents refuse to welcome the victim back. Rescuers are then forced to put such girls in shelter homes.
However, shelter homes can be a house of horror, as was demonstrated in a recent incident in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. A survey showed that children in a shelter home there were sexually abused by those who were supposed to protect them.
Girls who run away from their residences are also vulnerable to trafficking. Member of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights Rupa Kapoor says, “Some runaway girls fall into the hands of traffickers. A disturbing trend is that traffickers are eyeing younger girls — those aged between 9 and 11. The girls are then given hormone injections to make them sexually active early.”
There have been instances of traffickers camping for months in some vulnerable pockets, mostly in states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam, to lure minor girls there. In one such case, a 15-year-old girl from Darjeeling was recently rescued from a south Delhi locality. She ran away with her boyfriend but later realised he was a trafficker. The man had camped in Darjeeling and befriended the girl. He then persuaded her to elope with him to Delhi, promising to marry her. But police acted on a tipoff and rescued the girl.
The IR has started actively cracking down on this menace. In June, Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani kicked off an awareness drive. The aim was to protect the large number of vulnerable children coming in contact with the railways due to trafficking or eloping.
In 2016, the IR issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) on how to rescue children found abandoned in stations or trafficked through trains. The SOP has been implemented at 88 stations that have been designated as high-risk ones. It is likely to be rolled out to 174 stations soon, says an IR official. These stations have child kiosks manned by NGOs nominated by the ministry of women and child development. Rescued children are handed over to the child kiosks, which approach the child welfare committee. The panel decided if the child should be sent to her parents or lodged in a shelter.
Spotting a child in trouble is the first step. For this, railway officials, porters and vendors are being sensitised on the need to question children if they are travelling in large groups or when they seem to be uncomfortable with the person accompanying them.
If you suspect a minor girl is either running away or being trafficked in a train, dial 1098, the helpline.