Opinion Human trafficking: Forced rescues are not the answer

Today, 30 December, is International Human Rights day. Among the issues crying out for our attention is the scourge of human trafficking. Regarded as one of the ugliest crimes on planet, it is also an enormously lucrative business, and there are significant challenges in determining its prevalence throughout the country. According to statistics of India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), trafficking has manifold objectives. These include forced labour, prostitution, and other forms of sexual exploitation. According to the NCRB, three out of five people trafficked in 2016 were children below the age of 18 years. Of these, 4,911 were girls and 4,123 were boys. NCRB data shows that sexual exploitation for prostitution was the second major purpose for human trafficking in India, after forced labour.

The inadequacy of legal machinery, lack of institutional accountability and poor rehabilitative processes for those rescued are some of the factors that explain the increase in sex trafficking in India. There is no concrete prevention and protection strategy in place and the current law, The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) is not survivor-centric. A lot of work needs to be done in a collaborative manner, between key stakeholders such as the government and civil society organizations, for any substantial change to be seen.

One nationwide issue is the forced institutionalization of girls and women in shelter homes, wherein girls and women ‘rescued’ from brothels by the police, along with destitute women who have no families are institutionalized. This is done on the pretext of ensuring their ‘safety’ and ‘protection’. The ITPA says that after the police has rescued a victim of sex trafficking, the victim has to be produced to the court (in case of an adult) within 28 days, along with a detailed report of the family and the family’s willingness and capacity to protect the woman from further exploitation. In case family reunification does not seem to be in the best interests of the woman, she is to be placed in a protective home for rehabilitation with appropriate services. Nowhere does the ITPA specify that this home should be an institution wherein the freedom of the survivor is monitored and controlled.

Yet, there are several arguments in favor of institutional care for victims of sex trafficking. Shelters are needed when the family of the victim may not be equipped to protect the victim, provide support for recovery or rehabilitation. In some cases, the victim may have been trafficked by someone in the family or amongst relatives, and therefore, returning to the family means risking the safety of the victim and putting her in danger of being re-trafficked. In such cases, the children or women may require longer term rehabilitation and reintegration with a new community without having to return to her family or village. The threat of traffickers is another reason for running heavily guarded shelter homes. When a child or woman is rescued from a brothel, pimps, madams and brothel managers try to get in contact with her and threaten, coerce or manipulate her to not give a deposition in court and deny being trafficked or exploited. A child, or even a young woman in her late teens, is vulnerable to such manipulation, coercion or threat. The relationship between exploiters and victims of abuse is complex—and a victim is often under strong control of abusers. Therefore, agencies running these NGOs maintain strong control over outsiders’ access to children and women in shelter homes, monitor phone calls and minimize contact with the outside world.

At the same, there are several arguments against the institutionalization of victims of sex trafficking. Many adult women are institutionalized in these shelter homes for months and years, with no accountability from those running the shelter, who could be physically, emotionally and psychologically abusive, especially if they hold strong morals against prostitution. Most women or children have been trafficked from another state or country to another. Little has been done to build systems and services to make interstate communication and coordination faster. Due to these delays, the period of stay in these shelters becomes arbitrary and indefinite. The present law does not specifically recognize the issue of consent of adults for institutionalization. At times, once rescued, a woman may feel that the conditions of the shelter are so oppressive that she would want to go back to the brothels she worked in as it allowed her more autonomy. With the objective of ensuring protection and safety, the shelters often take control of the women’s actions, options, decisions and choices.

There are certain measures which can be taken to correct the situation. These include taking the consent of the woman/girl rescued within the period of 28 days. She should have the right to reject institutionalization and shelter based rehabilitation even if she is a victim of trafficking. The process of consent taking should be done by independent professionals, mental health professionals who do not have a stake in running of shelters or have biased positions on prostitution. Community based rehabilitation (CBR) should be explored an alternative wherein a survivor of trafficking and/or sexual exploitation stays in an independent shelter or with her family, and social workers assist her in availing health services, legal aid, access welfare schemes and income opportunities.

While accountability of the NGO (and other NGOs like it) must be set, the ITPA must be challenged and efforts should be made to see that the processes of consent taking, independent legal aid to survivors should be set in place. Several changes need to be made to the provisions of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, and that is what Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, a national forum that comprises of a group of survivors of human trafficking, is moving towards, advocating for these changes and bringing about substantial impact.

The author is a researcher, facilitator, and an activist, who works on issues of gender based violence and personal growth