Overcoming stigma: How human trafficking survivors are socially marginalised

A statistic from 2018 states that 7% of the total number of cases involving human trafficking across India take place in West Bengal alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, these incidents have increased manifold. With the help of authorities and organisations, some of them are rescued from these traffickers. However, their fight does not end there. Unfortunately, the survivors of human trafficking are still perceived negatively in our society, and face great stigma and humiliation. 

To define stigma, let’s borrow the words of Erving Goffman, an eminent sociologist of the twentieth century. According to him, stigma is ‘the process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.’ Simply put, it is basically the devaluation of the self by the other, for his or her attributes, through negative behavior. A person can face stigma on the basis of caste, class, background, physical ability and other factors.  Since sex work is considered derogatory because of the patriarchal construct of our society, all those involved in the work, regardless of their circumstances, are labelled as ‘anti-social elements.’ However, these women are mostly victims of trafficking. Society, unfortunately, fails to see that. 

After returning home, a survivor of human trafficking often faces humiliation both in the public and the private space. In the private space, the stigmatiser is family members. In public spaces, stigma primarily comes from the community and the institutions. As the act of prostitution violates the socially legitimised institution of marriage, the victims of trafficking are labelled ‘home wreckers' by married men and women in the community. The police and other government Institutions like the panchayat enjoy certain powers over the victims. They pay no attention to the survivor's plight because their prejudiced stigmatised outlook blinds them. The stigmatiser often blames the survivor's family for being ‘too greedy,’ the girl being too ‘spoilt' and for bringing ‘disrepute’ to the community. Sometimes stigma is used as a weapon to settle past scores and exercise their position over the helpless.

In a recent study amongst the victims of human-trafficking in North and South 24 Parganas conducted by Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK) – an anti trafficking organisation in West Bengal, it’s found that most of them after returning from trafficking areas initially struggled to continue education. The traffickers, as we know, target girls of younger age, mostly school girls. After their eventual rescue, these girls face stigma while going to school again. People brand them as ‘fallen girls’ who are not eligible for reintegration in mainstream society. This hugely impacts mental health status and the wellbeing of survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking. 

To fight against human trafficking and all related evils such as stigma, GGBK has mentored and nurtured BandhanMukti, a collective of survivors of human trafficking, on a common belief that it’s necessary to battle stigma surrounding the women who are merely the victims of an organised crime. Thus BandhanMukti is committed to bring change in the patriarchal narratives that are commonly associated with human trafficking. Rahima, survivor leader of BandhanMukti and Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT) says, “After I came back from the dangerous experience of torture and what not in the brothel, I found it was not the same me and my village because attitude and behaviors changed. My family was supportive but my parents were also stigmatized along with me. As a result of the exploitation and beating, I was traumatised and required medication, but I did not receive that in any of the shelter homes. After I came back, my community-based rehabilitation started with GGBK and today I am alive because I received mental health intervention. Due to stigma and ostracisation from the community, I felt my mental health becoming worse and I did not want to stay alive.   

“Stigma triggers different emotional reactions in the survivors like loneliness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, broken self confidence and suicidal thoughts, attempts. From our experience of working with survivors of human trafficking, we know that the best way to deal with stigma is through peer support and resilience building. As we know, only a survivor can truly empathize with other survivors. Thus, we try to support them with  psycho-socio legal intervention as per our abilities. Under an access to justice programme called Tafteesh, we also provide legal support to survivors who need that the most,” says Nihar Ranjan Raptan who heads GGBK.

“However, the entire attention of society is usually focused upon the victim while the perpetrators can get away unnoticed. We envision that one day, society will shift its stigmatizing gaze thrust upon the survivor to those people who are actually responsible for their plight,” he adds.

Awareness about human trafficking in the community and in various other sectors is one of the key components in the fight against the social menace. It requires targeted campaigns such as street plays, street corners and interactive sessions with others. Sometimes, survivors play the central role and often have the chance to look their stigmatiser directly in the eye without any fear or hesitation. It’s been observed that through the course of continued interaction, the society has accepted the survivors. The patriarchal gaze is gradually shifting, and hopefully the collective rage of the people will be unleashed against the heinous crime of human trafficking.

Many survivors, in their battle for justice, are also seen to be standing unflinchingly against humiliation and harassment. They have borne the brunt of social stigma and eventually overcome it through relentless struggle. Some of these women are the frontline warriors of BandhanMukti, keeping their war against human trafficking and other social evils alive. There are many utterly harrowing but inspiring narratives of women who have faced social stigma and eventually overcome it.

“Upon returning home, after being rescued, I discovered that the world around me had changed. My grandparents who raised me after my parents’ death even refused to accept me as their own. They hurled curse words at me, often labelling me a ‘slut’. My protests were frequently met with physical abuse,” narrates Puja (name changed), who was trafficked when she was 16 years old.

“Whenever I went outside, people from my village would jeer at me. One day, a woman from my neighborhood even accused me of having an illicit affair with her husband. Her accusation was followed by a beating and public humiliation. Luckily, several local villagers rescued me. However, most of them still believe that I am a ‘fallen woman’, and that I have brought shame upon the community. The traffickers responsible for my plight have now been put on trial. The criminal case against them is still ongoing. During the hearings of my case, I have faced harassment and physical abuse from the family of the accused multiple times. They even came to my house and threatened me to withdraw the case. They shamed me in every manner possible.

“The humiliation felt like an immovable rock weighing down on my chest. I felt helpless and suffocated every day. The thought of suicide often crossed my mind. However, I knew I could not let my abusers win. The other peers from BandhanMukti Survivors’ Collective stood by me and provided me with mental strength and support to continue my fight. Since I am being resolute and resilient in the face of adversity, the opinion of the people around me is also beginning to change,” she added.

The mission to uproot the social stigma surrounding these women is not an easy task. During our quest, we have encountered failures and setbacks along with success. We believe that one day the chains of social stigma will wither away.

However, until the patriarchy in the society ceases to exist, the stigma surrounding survivors of human-trafficking will keep on lingering. Thus, in order to change society, we should all learn to ask ourselves a solitary but imperative question,

‘Why cannot we, above all else, learn to treat a person as a human being?’

Subhasree Raptan is an activist at GGBK and member of Tafteesh, who has been working with survivors of human trafficking and exploitation in their journey for access to justice, rights, entitlement, participation and empowerment.  

Rahima Mondal is a survivor leader of the BandhanMukti and member of Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT). BandhanMukti is a collective of more than 450 survivors of human trafficking and gender based violence in West Bengal. Rahima is one of the fighters in the frontline and involved in grassroot level intervention and policy advocacy with the vision of making a systemic change which will be accountable to the survivors for justice and human rights so that they can lead life with respect and dignity.

Disclaimer: The article was published earlier on The News Minute, and republised here with authors' permission.