Like many Indian girls, Suchitra was taught her future profession by her mother. In her village, there was only one path. Even before she'd reached puberty, Suchitra had learned different sexual positions and other ways to please a customer.
At age 14, a man she had never seen before showed up one day at the family's house near Bharatpur in northern India. At her mother's urging, Suchitra got into his car. Six hours later they reached their destination. It was a brothel in New Delhi's red-light district. She had been sent into sexual servitude.
"I always knew that this would be my life," said Suchitra, sitting in her wardrobe-sized room and wearing a low-cut green top and jeans, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. "I can never forget what I've done but it is the only way for my family to earn a living."
Suchitra, now 20, is from one of hundreds of villages in India where centuries-old tradition dictates that most girls enter into a life of prostitution. Rising wealth hasn't reduced the trafficking of girls for sex in the world's second-most populous nation: The number of child prostitutes is growing and the average recruitment age has dropped to between nine and 12 years old, according to the Delhi-based National Human Rights Commission.
"We are witnessing an unprecedented growth in prostitution," said K.K. Mukherjee, a sociologist who has studied sex workers for more than three decades and has written government reports on the subject. "It is being driven by rising levels of income but also by a change in sexual attitudes and the increasing migration of women to cities."
Districts such as Bharatpur, where half of the women are illiterate, are breeding grounds for the country's US$4 billion sex trafficking industry. India has 3 million sex workers, of whom 1.2 million are below the age of 18, according to a government estimate, and the South Asian nation traffics more women for sex than any other country.
The growth of underage prostitution in a country whose gross domestic product has risen on average about 8 per cent annually in the past decade is testimony to the treatment of women and the power of caste in the world's biggest democracy. India, which carries out almost 40 per cent of the world's female sterilizations, where a woman is raped on average every 21 minutes and where a third of all women are illiterate, is failing to change views that undercut the status of women.
Whole families from some castes at the bottom rungs of India's social hierarchy rely on income from their daughters' sex work, with fathers and brothers often acting as pimps. The girls often have their virginity auctioned to the highest bidder once they reach puberty.
Suchitra, who is of the Bedia caste, shows how the caste-based system determines access to occupations and social status. Rooted in religion, the millennia-old structure marginalizes certain groups, imprisoning women in a cycle of isolation and abuse. Many female members of the Bedia community, which numbers about 20,000, say they are treated like outcasts. They can't marry if they have worked as a prostitute, are refused service in shops, are called "whores" and are greeted with disinterest by police when one of them is raped.
"Caste remains a defining feature for most Indians," said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi. "These attitudes bring an enormous cost in terms of a lack of social mobility and lost economic opportunities."