Sin in sacred places

29 November 2009

Every year more than 20 million people flock to Tirupati, but not all visit this 12th century abode of Lord Venkateswara out of devotion or for spiritual reasons. For many the reasons are carnal, and the lure of young boys stronger than the guilt of sin.

Dim-lit bars, cafes, substandard lodges, railway platforms, even cemeteries in and around India’s holy cities are the preferred spots for buying and selling sex. A report titled “Unholy Nexus”, by Bengaluru-based NGO Equations (Equitable Tourism Options), confirms that sexual exploitation of the male child is rampant in at least three famous pilgrim destinations in India — Tirupati, Puri and Guruvayoor.

Equations interviewed several children and reports that young boys are targeted more because there’s less risk of social stigma and fear of pregnancy. “It starts from the railway station, bus stop and cyber cafe. The exploiters are domestic tourists looking for cheap sex and they prefer male children as they believe there is less risk of AIDS”, says the report which was completed early this year. Also, boys get friendly with tourists much more easily.

The children interviewed spoke of tourists who prefer to have the same child during their next visit to Tirupati and how this is done through phone or by email (which the children use in cyber cafes) to fix a place and date. There are no middlemen for mediating with the clients.

Pressure on boys to earn a living for their families is also a major reason why boys are forced into prostitution — some of the children are abused when they were as young as six. Most boys in their early teens earn Rs 500 to 2,000 per day. The lucky ones may get a fancy toy or a meal as well.
The report contains this harrowing quote of 15-year-old Raju, a sex worker: “I am staying with Joseph (a French tourist) for the last five years. He says that he will take me with him. I have sex with him regularly. Initially it was painful, I used to cry. Now it is a daily routine. He gives money to my family. He has sex with other children also. Sometimes he wants us to have sex with each other. I am just waiting for the day when he will take me with him and so I agree with whatever he does to me”.
“Sexual exploitation in the name of tourism is one of India’s best kept secrets. There is increasing awareness about this issue and, hopefully, there will soon be clarity about the extent of exploitation”, says Ashwini Ailawadi, who heads strategic communication at Recovery and Healing from Incest, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Clarity is close at hand, but under lock and key at the ministry of women and child development. The ministry recently asked the Gram Niyojan Kendra, an NGO in Ghaziabad, to scan 68 tourist spots in India, including several religious towns, and collate facts and statistics on this growing menace. This elaborate study includes interviews of over 1,000 sex trade workers, an article in a national daily reported recently.
The report is not yet public, and neither the NGO nor the ministry is willing to part with it yet. Perhaps, the facts are too shocking. And perhaps that’s part of the reason for the urgency with which the ministry is pursuing its draft “Offence against Children Bill 2006” that’s lying with the ministry of law and justice.
“The issue of child-sex tourism caught media and government attention when six men were accused of sexually abusing children at an orphanage run by Freddy Peats in Goa. However, it took several years of research and advocacy by groups such as ours to break the myth that child sexual abuse linked to tourism was a phenomenon limited to Goa and isolated to foreign tourists alone”, says S. Vidya, programme coordinator at Equations.
According to the Equations’ survey, in Puri most of the victims work in either small hotels, fish-processing units, or are self-employed as beach boys, trinket sellers, tourist guides. The pimps are mostly locals — restaurant owners, travel agents and others who have easy access to foreign tourists. Domestic tourists reportedly make contact through these middlemen or hotel staff.
“Children don’t report sexual abuse cases due to shame, guilt, fear of hurting or embarrassing their loved ones, and police interrogation”, says Bidisha Fouzdar, senior manager with Child Rights and You (CRY).
In Puri, soliciting and sex takes place near Chilka Lake, Konark, on the beach at night and lonely areas close to the Jagannath Temple. A number of massage parlours and health clubs have mushroomed that cater primarily to tourists, both foreign and domestic. “Here prostitution takes place, involving both, adults and children. Yet the police denies knowledge of male child sexual abuse in Puri”, adds Ms Vidya.
In Guruvayoor, the menace was not so visible due to the state government’s ban on child labour. But the Equations report confirms that children are involved in prostitution. “Domestic tourists and local men returning from the Gulf are creating the demand”, Ms Vidya said.