In 2011, Casey Allred was teaching at a school that he helped start in a small village in India, and he noticed that girls -- especially girls around 12 or 13 -- started disappearing from the rolls. He went in search of them without much luck, until he finally talked to a local attorney.
“He told me that he had parents coming to his office looking for their lost daughters all the time,” says Allred. “These girls were being trafficked into the sex trade.”
Allred first visited India when he was a college student, and he helped found Effect.org, a nonprofit organization building schools in villages without access to education. Now, Allred, 28, is producing a film called “Stolen Innocence“ with director Chris Davis and is raising money to support the film on Kickstarter. The film, which he has been shooting for the last six months, documents his exploration from poverty-stricken homes in rural India to brothels in Mumbai with lines spilling onto the streets.
According to one estimate, one child goes missing every eight minutes in India, where the government estimates that a half-million children are currently at large.
Sex trafficking data can be hard to collect and verify, especially because of the clandestine criminal nature of the business and because victims are sometimes loathe to be identified as such, and this is complicated by the discovery earlier this year that Somaly Mam, sex trafficking’s foremost international opponent, had fabricated some of her own story as a victim. UNESCO says that while estimates vary, it’s “widely agreed” that the number of victims assisted is just a fraction of those being trafficked.
Experts believe that combination of loose laws and victimization of desperately poor families -- who are often fooled by abductors into believing that their daughters are being taken to cities to be street sweepers or dishwashers -- has made India ground zero for sex trafficking over the last several years.
Allred hopes to highlight the plight of young girls in India -- and through interviews with survivors and the nonprofit groups that help rescue and rehabilitate them, shine a light on how to solve the problem.
It can be hard to understand, from a Western point of view, how girls are taken from their families. But the problem is intertwined with cultural differences, and perhaps most importantly, desperate poverty, says Allred.
It’s much easier to be victimized, he says, when you’re “living in depravity, and your entire lives revolve around getting food for a day.” In order to be married, often these girls must come up with a dowry that is hard for poor families to scrape up, so being offered an alternative “good job” in the city can be seen as a blessing, says Allred.
According to one study, most victims come from rural areas, and almost half reported that their families earned about $1 a day. About 78 percent of victims in the country are from West Bengal -- one of the poorest areas in the country.
Families are also intimidated and even threatened at times, he says. “When you are poor and lower class, because of the caste system, it’s less likely the police will do anything or listen to you.”
Allred has worked with nonprofit groups to get access to brothels in big cities like Mumbai, where most of the girls are taken, and often drugged, before being delivered to pimps or brothels that pay the captors.
He has been surprised to find lines outside brothels spilling out into the streets -- and in India, the demand is largely local, unlike Thailand and places in Southeast Asia where sex tourism is popular. India is seeing rapid urbanization as young people -- especially young men -- are flooding the cities looking to get out of the slums and break the poverty cycle, and with that comes demand for things like prostitution.
A study by philanthropic organization Dasra reported that influx of migrant workers to megacities like Mumbai has “resulted in a rapid escalation in the demand for cheap sex” because “loneliness, coupled with the anonymity of the city” has made it an attractive option, and a majority of migrant workers report that they have paid for sex.
Demand and cold, hard economics are combining to create a spike in sex trafficking, and survivors that Allred has spoken to say that they are forced to service around 20 men a day, which means that each girl brings in a chunk of cash. Usually, none of the money goes to the girl herself.
The Dasra study states that the rise in sex trafficking in India is due to “immense profitability with minimal risk,” and that a net profit margin of over 70 percent makes trafficking “one of the most profitable businesses in the world.”
Allred, who has visited three cities, and with the money from the Kickstarter compaign hopes to film in three more and submit his film to Sundance next year, has worked on the ground with local nonprofit groups. They tell him that in the last five years the problem has grown “out of control,” and for every one girl they rescue, they know that five more are taken in.
Rescues do happen though, says Allred, and there is hope. So far he’s shot in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and interview subects include the industry’s shady figures, which he usually captures through hidden cameras. But he also features uplifting stories from survivors and their rescuers.
He hopes to shine a light on -- and help raise money for -- local nonprofit groups that work on the ground to break sex trafficking rings and return individual girls to their families or rehabilitate them.
“With this film we want to leave people feeling inspired to do something about this, not depressed and sad. The strength of the girls and people who help them is inspiring. We want viewers to see that they have the means to help fix it.”