Robbed of an innocent childhood, Bhavani, a young girl from southeast India, escaped the brothels thanks to a guardian angel.
How she got there is an all-too-common tale of "caring" relatives promising parents and children a better life, when in fact they're selling the children like cheap goods.
Born into a poor family in Pileru, a district of Andhra Pradesh in southeast India, then-12-year-old Bhavani (not her real name in order to protect her identity) helped her parents toil in the fields instead of going to school. Her six sisters and three brothers also helped, but at the end of the day, it always seemed there was never enough food, and the future always looked bleak.
Things looked up one afternoon when a maternal cousin said she knew of a perfect husband for Bhavani. The young man worked in bustling New Delhi and wanted his bride-to-be to move there. Bhavani seized the opportunity and married Amar, thrilled at the prospect of a new and hopefully prosperous life.
Even though she was young, she said she was happy to tie the knot, especially since her parents received money and bore none of the marriage expenses. After the wedding, Bhavani, Amar and the aunt left for New Delhi. When they got there, Amar asked his new bride to stay with one of his cousins until he could find them the right home.
Bhavani's honeymoon ended abruptly. Amar's cousin's house turned out to be a brothel in the city's red light district. The real ordeal began the next day when she had to "take care" of a customer and refused.
Beatings and starvation followed. Bhavani had nowhere to go, no money and no one to call. After seven days of struggle, she gave in.
Through discussions with other girls Bhavani realized her "husband" had promised a better life to 12 other brides that same year. She also learned that she had been sold for about $1,000.
After five abortions and innumerable sexual diseases, Bhavani was saved by Prajwala, an Indian organization that rescues trafficked victims. Tipped off by a faux "john," the police helped Prajwala get the young girl out of the brothel.
"No one should tolerate trafficking, no child, no woman deserves it," said Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of Prajwala, who has spent more than a decade rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked women and children.
"We have to break the culture of silence and respond against it," she said.
The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that about 1 million children enter the sex industry every year. The United Nations claims that at least 4 million people are involved in trafficking with Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa among the most vulnerable areas.
"Given the incredible creative steps traffickers use to obscure what they're doing, no figures inspire total confidence," said Greg Fields, managing director at Global Fund for Children. Children are not only exploited for sexual purposes but they're also sold as cheap labor in sweatshops or on farms or as domestic workers, which further blurs the statistics, he explained.
"Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry after drug trafficking," said Katherine Chon, co-executive director of the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based grassroots organization that combats trafficking and modern-day slavery.
She believes that the billion-dollar industry will outstrip drug trafficking because enforcement isn't as strict and it's harder to identify.