Five Indian anti trafficking campaigners were gang-raped at gunpoint during an awareness programme they were organising in a village, police said on Friday.
Unidentified men picked up nine activists during a street play performance in Kochang village in Jharkhand state and drove them into a dense forest, where the men were beaten up and the women raped, police officer Ashwini Kumar Sinha said.
“It is a very rare case, where people working on anti-trafficking have been targeted,” Sinha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Khunti district of Jharkhand.
“We are not ruling out the possibility of the involvement of trafficking gangs and are investigating all aspects.”
The street play had been organised by charity Asha Kiran, which runs a shelter home for the rehabilitation of rescued girls in Khunti district of Jharkhand, which has been identified as a trafficking hotspot.
There are around 200 rescued girls in Asha Kiran’s shelter. Most of them were trafficked into domestic servitude to cities where a growing middle class is looking for cheap live-in labour.
Jharkhand is among the top five states in India that reports increasing cases of human trafficking, with traffickers targetting poor villages, convincing vulnerable families to send their daughters away for employment, campaigners said.
Indian activists fighting to curb the trafficking of women and children condemned the shocking attack on “frontline workers”.
“We are still processing what has happened,” said Rajiv Ranjan Sinha of the Jharkhand Anti-Trafficking Network – a coalition of 14 grassroots organisations working in the central Indian state.
“This is the first time field workers have been targetted and it is both surprising and shocking. It is now going to become more difficult to work on this issue.”
India has seen an increase in reports of human trafficking in recent years. Almost 20,000 women and children were victims of trafficking in 2016, a rise of 25 percent from the previous year, according to government data.
Activists say the figures are under-reported, especially due to a lack of awareness in rural areas, emphasising the importance of programmes run by various charities to combat trafficking.
“The incident underlines the dangers on the ground and the fact that human trafficking is an organised and ruthless crime,” said Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, an anti-trafficking charity that also works in Jharkhand.
“Every day young girls are being rescued from domestic servitude in Indian cities. Many of them are from remote villages, which is why these awareness programmes are so important and the incident is shocking.”