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This story appears in the
October 2020 issue of
National Geographic magazine.

“Before they were sold to the same brothel, Sayeda and Anjali were typical teenagers, growing up in similar circumstances a few hundred miles apart.”

That is the understated opening of a story that I hope shocks and alarms every person who reads it, and moves readers to action. “Stolen Lives,” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, is a revelatory investigation of a human rights tragedy: the sexual enslavement of children for profit.

A multibillion-dollar industry, sex trafficking of minors spans the globe and ensnares millions of children—most fleeing grinding poverty, illiteracy, and an utter lack of opportunity. Most of its victims are girls.

Virtually no country is untouched by this scourge, but some parts of the world are especially hard-hit. Among them: the Indian state of West Bengal and its neighbor Bangladesh, which once were a single province known as Bengal.

“In 2017 alone, 8,178 children were reported missing from West Bengal, nearly an eighth of India’s total that year. A significant number of girls among them were almost certainly sold to brothels,” Bhattacharjee writes. “The picture might be worse for Bangladesh: One government estimate suggested 50,000 girls are trafficked out of the country to India, or through India, every year.”

To spotlight this global tragedy, we bring you Bhattacharjee’s heartbreaking account of two Bengali girls, Sayeda and Anjali. Supposed boyfriends tricked them into eloping, then trafficked them to a brothel where they were sold for sex up to 20 times a day and savagely beaten if they rebelled.

We are able to tell this story thanks to the dedication of Bhattacharjee—a National Geographic contributing writer who began his career covering crime in Kolkata—and Smita Sharma, a Delhi-based photographer who has documented the problem for years and whose images accompany the coverage.

In the 132 years since our founding, National Geographic often has called attention to human rights abuses and inhumane acts. Again and again, we are heartened by how our readers respond.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

The trafficked girls in this coverage are referred to by their first initials and were photographed so they aren’t identifiable. In the article
“Stolen Lives,” pseudonyms—Sayeda and Anjali—are used for the two featured girls. This is an exception to our policies and practice at
National Geographic. We’re masking identities to guard these young women’s safety and their future, and to comply with Indian laws that protect the identity of victims of sex crimes.

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