By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - South Asian nations will set up a toll-free helpline and online platform to fight human trafficking, one of the region's biggest problems, and trace the thousands of children who go missing in the region annually, India's government said late on Wednesday.
Ministers from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal came to the agreement after a conference on child protection held under the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
South Asia, with India at its center, is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.
India's women and child development ministry said delegates from the eight South Asian countries adopted a series of measures to boost cooperation to end child exploitation.
"(These include) regional cross sharing and programming on ICT initiatives to trace missing children, working toward establishing a uniform toll free helpline, developing a regional strategy and common standards for addressing all forms of sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking," it said in a statement.
There are no accurate figures on the number of people being trafficked within South Asia, but activists say thousands of mostly women and children are trafficked within India and as well as from its poorer neighbors Nepal and Bangladesh.
Many are sold into forced marriage or bonded labor working in middle class homes as domestic servants, in small shops and hotels or confined to brothels where they are repeatedly raped.
SEX TOURISM, CHILD PORNOGRAPHY
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh told delegates that curbing human trafficking was a major challenge for all nations, but that by sharing information and best practices, it was possible to develop regional solutions.
"With increasing access to information technology and changing nature of our globalized economy, new threats for children are emerging - sex tourism, child pornography, online threats to children among others," said Singh.
"To address these challenges comprehensively, within SAARC countries, we can all benefit from reinforcing regional cooperation and strengthening mechanisms for sharing of information, experience, expertise and good practices."
In India alone, government data shows 73,549 children went missing in 2014, of which 31,711 were not traced compared to 90,654 missing in 2011, of which 34,406 were not found.
India has over the years implemented a series of child protection measures, such as a national toll free helpline called Childline http://www.childlineindia.org.in/ which receives millions of calls every year.
It has also launched a Track Child http://trackthemissingchild.gov.in/ web portal for authorities to share information on missing children, and a "Lost and Found" portal for the public, where parents can register details of missing children and citizens can report sightings.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)