India's Highway Of Shame

"It's her first time. Nobody has touched her."

This girl is 10 years old.

On a main highway in India's state of Madhya Pradesh, she's being sold for sex for 5,000 rupees.

That’s $70.

She’s part of a hidden and illegal trade exploiting young girls.

Prostitutes in India must be 18 and sex with a minor is always considered rape.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of reported child rape cases in the country.

National Crime Records Bureau, 2017

And that number is only increasing.

Meneka was forced into the sex trade at the age of 15.

She is from the Bachara tribe, a Dalit community known colloquially as the "untouchables".

They face intense discrimination because they are members of India's lowest caste.

When the men struggle to find work, young female family members are sent to sell sex by the roadside.

It’s been happening for generations.

And it's driven by a dark truth - these young girls are pimped by their parents.

“I feel like I am born in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.”

There’s a constant demand for prostitutes along Madhya Pradesh’s main highway.

Here, young women sit on traditional woven beds - a sign to passing truckers that they’re selling sex.

Many drivers spend half the year away from home.

A recent study showed a third of them use prostitutes.

Filmed on hidden cameras, these truckers admit they’ve broken India’s child rape laws.

But they’re not worried about the age of the girls.

“There are a lot of diseases. You have to use two condoms. Sex workers have a lot of diseases.”

Data shows 7.4% of truckers in India carry HIV.

10 times more than the general population.

National AIDS Control Organisation India

These men insist prostitution helps prevent sexual violence.

But Ashif Shaikh, founder of NGO Jan Sahas, says this practice is the serial rape of children.

“These men are rapists, not customers.”

Since 2018, raping a child under 12 can carry the death sentence.

Madhya Pradesh handed down seven death sentences for this crime that year.

Laws are strong on paper, but raids by the authorities don’t serve as a deterrent.

At a local police station, four girls have been arrested during a sting.

One of them is 14 and will be sent to a rescue shelter.

“This is our lowest priority.”

Superintendent Rakesh Shukla says, "If we do more raids then they will have to go to a lawyer and to the court, and then the expenses incurred will fall on this poor girl. And they will have to pay through prostitution."

Some former prostitutes are now trying to break the cycle.

Geeta worked in the trade for 13 years.

Now she runs an after-school centre for children.

She shows them they can have a brighter future.

"Nowadays we tell the girls to study. Don't go into that swamp. Don't look at those paths. Don't turn around and look at places where this kind of work is going on. Ignore it. The girls know it's in their family also. Don't pay attention to it. We tell them to focus on their studies."

“Some say they will become doctors, lawyers as well. They have very big dreams.”

While attitudes are slowly changing, the fate of girls still lies in the hands of their families.

In the past decade, India’s middle class has become more vocal about the rising rates of rape across this patriarchal nation.

But on this highway, vulnerable girls from the country’s lowest caste are still being left behind.