sold to traffickers by their parents, the children are enticed with stories
of beautiful new clothes, a glamorous and exciting life, the chance of
an education and a regular wage. Children, sometimes as young as five years
old, have been taken and, in some cases, never seen again. Sold for as little
as 1,000 rupees ($13), the families rarely receive the promised wage.
Once in the circuses, these children often live in squalor and are never
allowed to leave the circus compound. They are routinely beaten in order to
teach them the difficult and dangerous tricks, and sexual abuse is
commonplace. In effect, these children have been totally at the mercy of
circus management who treat them as they please.*
In 2002, this scandal was exposed by a Nepalese children's charity, the
Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (EBMF), which runs a children's refuge
in Kathmandu. With police support, the EBMF started carrying out surprise
raids on circuses to rescue these highly vulnerable and at risk children.
To date more than 300 Nepalese children have been rescued by the
EBMF and, where possible, returned to their families. Those at risk of being
re-trafficked or whose families are too poor to support them are given a
place to live at the trusts' refuge in Kathmandu.
The refuge is run by Shailaja CM and is home to 122 children, half of whom
are from circuses. Shailaja heads the rescue operations and also tracks down
the Nepalese traffickers who sell the children to the circuses. Many of these
traffickers are now serving long jail sentences.
Through this relentless work, conditions in circuses are improving. But there
are thought to be more than 100 circuses operating in India and
only 12 of these are registered with the Indian Circus Federation - a
non-governmental body that ensure standards and good practice. This lack of
regulation makes circuses extremely difficult to monitor, and it is thought
that there could be between 1,000 and 2,000 children working inside
Some of the bigger Indian circuses are suspected of having links with other
businesses, such as gambling and gun running. As a result they can hold great
power within the states where they operate, even on a political level, and
have been known to collude with local government officials to organise their
protection in the case of a rescue operation.
Their wealth and power have made it very difficult for Shailaja and the EBMF
team to take any action against them. In the past, on attempted rescue
operations in some of these larger circuses, they have been faced with guns
and received death threats.
But in April 2011, an amendment was made to the Juvenile Justice Act, making
it strictly illegal for anybody under the age of 18 to work or train within
circuses. With this amendment in place, the EBMF is now planning a new
phase of raids that will target these larger, more powerful circuses first.
This film follows Shailaja and the EBMF team on their first rescue operation
since this amendment was passed. They set off from Nepal to raid a large
circus operating in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India which is
suspected of using child performers, but as filmmaker Sky Neal finds out
there is still a very long way to go before child labour and trafficking into
Indian circuses is brought to an end.
* This statement does not apply to all circuses in India.