For the communities living in the Sundarbans, a remote region of islands on the border of eastern India and Bangladesh, a perfect storm of climate change and extreme poverty has put many thousands of women and children at heightened risk of sex trafficking.
In an effort to push back against the practice, the NGO Save the Children India is working with local partners in more than 80 villages in the region to offer classes to the community’s children, PRI's The World reports in a story published this week.
According to PRI's Sam Eaton, the classes serve a dual purpose: First, to get the students back on track with formal schooling -- many have dropped out -- and second, to teach them how to keep an eye out for traffickers, alerting their teachers to suspicious people turning up nearby. As a result, the students become a sort of “vigilante” group protecting their peers.
A number of factors have contributed to the region becoming a trafficking hub.
The rising sea level in the region -- especially after the devastating Cyclone Aila hit the islands in 2009 -- has been responsible for repeatedly destroying locals’ homes and farmland in what Reuters described as "everyday disasters."
The situation has made families increasingly desperate for economic opportunities, causing them to send their children -- both boys and girls -- away to find work in a city.
In other cases, families ignore their suspicions of attractive young men who arrive in their community promising marriage to their daughters only to later sell them into sex trafficking, Reuters' Aditya Ghosh described in a May 2015 story.
"They are very easily misled by traffickers and agents lurking around, who promise a fantastic life in the cities, the kind that the mainstream media project," Bankim Hazra, Sundarban Development Board chairman, explained to Ghosh.
But Save the Children's program is having results.
According to PRI, trafficking cases in those villages have been practically eliminated. The group has also set up child protection committees to serve as liaisons between communities and mainland police and are also looking to start community banks to help families finance repairs to flood-damaged homes.
Still, challenges remain and the problem is massive. The practice of trafficking is so widespread in the region that India’s West Bengal state, of which the Sundarbans are a part, is leading the country in reported cases of human trafficking and was home to almost 40 percent of the entire country’s cases, according to a 2013 National Crime Record Bureau report cited by the Indian Express.
As reported by Reuters, over 30,000 adults and children in the region were reported missing over the past 10 years of available data, a number considered by victim advocates to be an underestimate because fears of community stigma cause many families not to report their cases to police.
It wasn’t always this bad. According to a 2013 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, West Bengal has seen a 23-fold increase in the number of missing children and a 33-fold increase in missing women between the years 2001 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the West Bengal government plans to help Save the Children scale up its education program to serve more villages, PRI reported. Earlier this summer, the government also announced the creation of a vocational program aimed at helping rescued trafficking victims get back on their feet.
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