We Cry in Silence: A Photo Investigation of Human Trafficking

Award-winning photojournalist Smita Sharma has launched a photography book project that documents the vulnerability of young girls that are victims of human trafficking between Bangladesh, Nepal, and India.

A Widespread Issue That is Regularly Underreported

The painstaking issue of young lives affected by trafficking and sex crime is not a new topic for Sharma, based in Delhi, India. As a photojournalist, she has covered various human rights, gender, and social issues locally and globally. She has shot assignments for major publications, like National Geographic Magazine, documenting child marriage, sexual violence, the effect of pregnancy on girls’ education in Kenya, and others.

Her recent project is “We Cry in Silence,” a photo book that looks at the widespread issue of trafficking minors for sex in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. Using her substantial experience covering critical issues on the ground, Sharma’s book “seeks to address this complex, global issue at the local level, and open a dialogue to move people to work towards a regional solution.”

Photo book about trafficking victims
Sisters Simran and Sakina Khan collect drinking water from a public tubewell at a village in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India. For many girls in rural India, education ends before high school, which often costs money. Boys are given preferential treatment while girls are expected to do household chores. Poor families are more likely to put money toward education for boys and wedding expenses for girls.
Photo book about trafficking victims
Girls walk home from school in South 24 Parganas. For many girls in rural India, education ends before high school, which often costs money. Although child marriage is illegal, it’s still widely practiced. In this region, with high rates of child sex trafficking, families also worry that girls are at risk on long commutes to school.
Photo book about trafficking victims
Anjali plays with her nephew at her home near Siliguri, India. Anjali was 16 when she became involved with a man who enticed her to run away from her home in Siliguri, a city in India’s West Bengal state, with the promise of marriage. Instead, he and an accomplice sold her to a brothel in Mahishadal, near Haldia, an industrial town. She was forced to have sex up to 20 times a day until she was rescued. For a year and a half, she lived at Sneha among girls she said understood her anguish. Now an adult, she’s living at home with her mother, who would like her to marry, but Anjali vows not to fall in love again. “I feel extremely lonely,” she said. “I miss my friends at the shelter.”

Speaking to Photography Ethics Centre, Sharma noticed a lack of in-depth reporting on this issue, when she previously covered a story for National Geographic, titled “Stolen Lives: The harrowing story of two girls sold into sexual slavery.” In addition to publications skimming over the topic, she also found that between 20017 and 2016 trafficking increased by 140% in South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific.

Photo book about trafficking victims
M., who is now 19, was lured from her home in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India when she was 16 by a man who professed his love for her over the phone. After she met him, he proposed marriage. On a date, he drugged her and took her to Delhi, where he sold her to a brothel. In the brothel, she was beaten, starved, and forced to have sex with up to 30 customers a day. During two police raids, the brothel owner hid her. She was rescued on a third raid.
Photo book about trafficking victims
When she was 12, S. left her home in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, with a family acquaintance who promised to find her a job in Dhaka. She was handed over to a man who smuggled her into the Indian state of West Bengal which shares a long porous border with Bangladesh. From West Bengal she was taken to a brothel in Mumbai and sold. S. was enslaved for two years before police freed her and sent her to a shelter. Six months later she met a woman who said she’d take S. back to Bangladesh but instead sold her to a brothel in Namkhana, a small town in West Bengal. After she was rescued again, S. has been staying at a shelter and waiting for her repatriation.
Photo book about trafficking victims
M., 16, shows marks of self-injury marks on her hand. M. used to be beaten by her alcoholic father. In December 2017, she left her home in South 24 Parganas out of anger and took a train to Sealdah Station in Kolkata. At the station, she met three boys who befriended her and then sold her to a brothel at the infamous Sonagachi red-light district. The local police station was tipped off by an informer about an underage girl being held captive, and the team went to the brothel and rescued her after three days. M. currently lives at a shelter for trafficked girls at South 24 Parganas, West Bengal.
Photo book about trafficking victims
S. said her family hardly managed to buy food because they were so poor. She eloped with a man from Dhaka, Bangladesh who promised to take care of her. “How would I know that he had the intention of selling me?” said S., now an adult. “My life has so much pain.” She was smuggled into India by the river and forced to work in a brothel. She escaped with a woman she trusted who sold her to another brothel. S. was rescued and taken to Sneha, a girl’s shelter in West Bengal, India.

As part of the project, Sharma has photographed and interviewed more than 50 young survivors of sex and domestic trafficking. In addition, she has acquired access to traffickers, too, and interviewed them to understand the methods they use to psychologically manipulate and trap vulnerable girls.

The reasons for victims falling prey to trafficking criminals vary but all cases result in suffering. Some victims become trapped in domestic servitude through faux employment agencies, while others are manipulated by men professing love or trafficked by relatives who later lock them in a brothel and leave them unable to escape.

Trilingual Book About the Lives Disrupted by Trafficking

The photo book which contains Sharma’s photographs and the testimonies of victims and survivors has been translated in Bengali, Hindi, and English and serves as a means of creating permanent evidence of the dangers many young women face. The resulting photobook, published in association with the FotoEvidence Association, will be distributed to schools and libraries in India, as well as local law enforcement agencies.

A photograph of S., 16, from police files. S. has been missing from her village in West Bengal since 2013. She called up her father in 2016, three years after her disappearance to inform that she was being held up as a sex slave by Kashmiri militants at Uri region from where she had managed to escape and call from a public telephone booth. The police tried to trace her from that location but couldn’t find her. Her family still hopes she will return home one day.
Photo book about trafficking victims
S. and N. at home in Khulna, Bangladesh. At 14, their daughter Sayeda was trafficked to a brothel in Mahishadal by a boy she’d met at a dance school. For three years, she was forced to perform sex work
at all hours. Sayeda was rescued and sent to a shelter in West Bengal, India. She was preparing to return
home to Bangladesh when she died from a liver problem caused by excessive drinking at the brothel.
Photo book about trafficking victims
A West Bengal police boat patrols the Hooghly River in the Sundarbans, a watery area with dense mangrove forests that straddles the southern India-Bangladesh border. The Indian state of West Bengal shares a long border with Bangladesh which includes many unguarded stretches, allowing traffickers to smuggle girls into the country. Traffickers often use rivers to avoid detection when smuggling girls into India.

The “We Cry in Silence” project will also see a release of an accompanying newspaper zine, traveling exhibits, and community events in collaboration with local partners, like Shakti Vahini, an Indian advocacy organization for human rights and democratic institutions, Sanlaap India, an anti-trafficking organization, and others.

Detailed Coverage Despite Risks to the Photographer

While conducting the research and working on her project, Sharma was pregnant, which meant taking additional safety precautions. In addition, she found that her choice to dedicate time to this meaningful project was challenged, too.

“My original doctor, a woman, was not supportive and asked me to cancel my work for National Geographic and advised me to start taking photos of flowers,” she tells PetaPixel. “I found that very classist and humiliating.”

Photo book about trafficking victims

“For the next six months I had to get an ultrasound every 15 days to ensure I wasn’t getting any infection as I was working in some unhygienic and dangerous places,” she adds. “It’s been a hard journey but very fulfilling and I am very grateful for the support of Fotoevidence and Sarah Leen who is editing this book.”

The project will be funded if it reaches its goal on Kickstarter by April 26, 2022. If successful, the book will be published in August in India and will be available globally starting in September.

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Image credits: Photos by Smita Sharma.