This primary assembly by Gerald Haigh looks sensitively at child trafficking, using the example of a charity that helps circus children in Nepal

The Esther Benjamins Trust was featured on BBC Radio Four ‘Midweek’ programme on 27th May. The Trust has carried out a successful campaign to stop the virtual enslavement of Nepalese children by Indian circus owners.

There are stories of how once, when children didn’t have so many opportunities for travel and many were quite poor and didn’t have much of a chance of living an exciting life, they would dream of running away to the circus. Some of them actually did it – went off, begged for a job doing anything, and ended up as acrobats or clowns or lion tamers. It sounds pretty romantic and exciting. Do you think it was as exciting as it sounds? Maybe not. There’d be hard work and discomfort and I guess there’s also be homesickness. So what usually happened was that the ones that ran away got fed up and went home to a nice bed, a plate of chips and a hug from mum.

Today, though, we’re going to find out about some circus children who didn’t run away but were sent away, and didn’t have the chance to go back home. We’ll learn, too, about the people who helped them and gave them a chance to have a new life.

In some parts of India circuses are very popular. They tour the countryside, and people go to see the acrobats and the animals. One of the most popular attractions is to see young children doing acrobatic tricks on the high wire and on the trapeze.

Up until very recently, the children were usually from Nepal; a country close to India. They hadn’t run away to join the circus – they’d been sold by their parents to the circus owner, who then kept them locked up and wouldn’t let them out except to do their tricks. Do you think it’s cruel of those parents to sell their children to the circus? Well usually the parents were tricked by the circus owners, and by traders who did the deals between the parents and the circuses. A trader would go to a Nepalese village where the people were very poor and not very well educated and say to a family.

‘I think your child can do well in the circus. She could be a star, with everyone clapping and cheering. Imagine that! I will give you some money and I will take your child and give her a much better life than you have here in this poor country.’

And so the parents, who wanted only for their child to have a better chance in life, would let their son or daughter go. But instead of being well looked after they would be treated badly – often beaten and punished and made to work hard on their acts. Then after about ten years, when they were starting to grow up, they would be no more use to the circus and they would be told to leave. Unfortunately they hadn’t been to school, or even entered the world outside the circus much, so they weren’t able to earn a living or look after themselves properly.

All over the world there are children who are made to work in dangerous and difficult jobs. Sometimes, though, someone comes along to help them, and one person who helped the Nepalese circus children was Philip Holmes.

Philip was an Army Officer – a dentist in fact – in the Dental Corps. In 1999, when Philip’s wife, Esther Benjamins, died, Philip decided to do something in her name to help children. He knew quite a few people from Nepal because he had worked with the Ghurka soldiers who come from Nepal, so he decided that he would set up the Esther Benjamins Trust to help Nepalese children.

He went to Nepal and straight away started working to stop the selling of children. He got the government to step in and now 13 people who made money from the trade are in jail, and the trafficking has just about stopped.

But there is another problem. The children who have been rescued have still missed out on having an education. The younger ones can start having lessons now, but the older ones need to learn things quickly that will help them to earn money.

When he started the charity, Philip asked his artist friend Martin Cheek to help the rescued children to learn to make mosaics. When they did this, Philip and Martin found that the young people they’d rescued were very talented at making mosaics, so they set up bigger art workshops. They saw that making mosaics helped the children learn skills which they could use to earn money, and, because art can be a very calming activity, it also helped them to recover from the horrible things they had lived through in the circus

The buying and selling of children can happen for a number of reasons, usually a mixture. Some of the reasons are:

Poverty: Many families in the developing world are desperately poor and find it difficult to support and feed their children.

Lack of education: Too many people do not understand what can happen to their children and cannot read warnings, or contracts and documents.

Hope for something better: Parents want good things for their children and can be fooled into giving them up.

Greed: There are criminal gangs who will lie and cheat to get their hands on children. And there are employers who will use children because they are cheap and can easily be controlled.

Because of these things, all over the world it’s estimated that 1.2 million children are sold away from their homes every year.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for our homes and loving families. We pray for all children who do not have the comfort of their homes. Be with them, and give strength and determination to all those who try to help them.


Tragically, poverty and greed sometimes work together to destroy family life.

Further information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: By Gerald Haigh