An Early Start
Born in a middle class home, I grew up in a neighbourhood of government employees. For the most part, I had a very sheltered childhood, with my father guiding me through my early years. He viewed education as essential to my learning, quite contrary to the times where becoming a doctor or engineer was the norm. He was forward thinking, different and a great support in the choices I made, shaping my personality and outlook to life immensely.
My professional, and formal social work education provided me with adequate exposure to human rights, understanding of gender issues, the problems that plague our society and approaches employed to tackle them. I knew that this is was my calling.
The Genesis Of Prerana
In the year of 1986, the world came together to discuss the rights of children, with the UN recognising the significance of defining the rights for every child. Shortly after the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was globally adopted. Yet, years of discourse leading up to this Document of Declaration of Child Rights excluded the children of the Red Light Areas (RLA). None of the dialogue around child rights looked at issues pertaining to children born to prostituted women, and their social problems. Global discussion were focused on child trafficking, but almost no discussion on inter-generational trafficking.
I distinctly recall my visit to the RLA in Kamathipura as a 22 year student, right out of college. What I saw gave me the conviction to start Prerana. The image of innocence lost, generations wound up in a vicious cycle of exploitation; children made to buy condoms or alcohol and sleep under the bed, as their mothers attended numerous customers. The deeper we looked into their lives, the more we realized that every child born in the red light area would end up in the sex trade or allied activities unless we brought to light their plight and provided them with support. That is why Prerana was born – to break this cycle of exploitation and inter-generational trafficking.
Initial days were difficult. The laws that prevailed for the protection of children three decades ago were not as well defined. We witnessed a total absence of several focal areas to cater to the needs of these vulnerable children. Furthermore, every time we tried to bring up the topic for discussion, whether it was with civic society, stakeholders involved in implementation of the law or policy makers, the response often received was, “What else do you expect of these children? Prostitution is a necessary social evil; who better to substitute their mother than these children born to prostitutes?”. Our efforts were met with apathy. We had to build and amplify their voices for the judiciary and police to discard their indifference and address their issues head on.
In 1996, a mass raid was conducted in a brothel because of a suo moto writ petition filed by the then Chief Justice of Maharashtra. The entire experience made us realise a very essential thing – there was no systematic provision for or any attention given to what happened to the victim post the rescue! This meant, the chances of women and children victims being re-trafficked post rescue were a high possibility, and in many cases a reality. The need was to take a hard look at the existing provision in the law for when a person was rescued from the sex trade. Our attempt to understand the situation led us to realize: a lot of these women and girls did not cooperate in the prosecution of their traffickers due to lack of support post rescue; there was no victim witness protection or support system for victims or intimidated witnesses. The women did not trust the system or the law for their protection. There was no way to get them to testify as the society blamed the women and girls; they perceived them as perpetrators and not victims.
This experience brought determination with it; to advocate and amplify our voices for the rights of the victims pre, during and post rescue, leading towards sustainable rehabilitation. We understood that livelihood training has to be creative, current and market oriented. We also talked about alternatives of rehabilitation. For generating sufficient awareness around the situation, processes and laws, sensitization, training, advocacy and scaling-up of post rescue reforms, was the approach that we felt the need for, and also what we practiced.
One can’t deny that, changing a mind-set takes a lifetime. Of many arguments that came our way, one that we often heard was, “These women already make a lot of money in the sex trade, so why should we spend money on such women and their children? These women fail to take care of their children, so why do they have them in the first place?” Some argued that by starting services for children of the prostitutes, we were absolving them of their responsibilities. Some came with a ‘guarantee-wanted’ board, they needed assurance that this “investment” will not be futile, and that the children would eventually not end up in the sex trade or any other criminal activities. What they could not understand is – Rights are for all, irrespective of to whom they are born, where they are born and when they are born.
In the development sector, service based interventions are extremely crucial, however the impact is much larger if best practices, approaches or systems translate into policies. Hence, with a strong service base, our next step was to address the glaring need for resources on this issue. The outcome was the first Anti-Trafficking Centre (ATC) in South Asia. The ATC was a knowledge hub, a medium to share and disseminate our learnings on the field or in research about Human Trafficking and its destination crimes. We also conducted trainings of duty bearers and other positive stakeholders.
Stories Learnt & Told
When our programs gets replicated, adopted or scaled up, by peers working to drive the Anti-Trafficking movement, it feels like victory…a step forward, a step closer to achieving our vision. But what seems like a bigger more defining milestone is every time a woman recognises her right, her child clears his/her board exam or takes his mother out of the RLA and into the mainstream… an unmatched sense of joy and accomplishment.
There are so many stories etched in my memory… some of battles lost and many of barriers crossed. A while ago, a group of girls was rescued from a brothel and placed in a government shelter home. A session to help them open up was conducted, but no one shared a thing. To break the silence, I asked, “Why don’t we talk about our lives?” No one responded. Then I asked, “Why don’t we talk about our likes and dislikes?” There was still no response. So I volunteered to tell them about a day in my life. I told them about my daily life undertakings and activities. Still, no one opened up. Suddenly, one girl stood up and said she wanted to share something. She told me, “You sleep at night, but I lay wide awake. You switch off the lights at night, so it’s dark, but for us, it is a world of darkness despite the light running as electricity. You women sleep with one man at night, we sleep with 4 to 5 men every night. The man you sleep with, the age difference may not be much; but the men that we sleep with often are as old as our fathers. Your home is probably big, but my home, my universe is ‘6 by 4’. You probably enjoy a meal at your table, but our lives are customer controlled. The customer is the king.”
Despite happening 2 decades ago, and having seeing all the trials and tribulations this sector possibly could, this incident shook me. It hit us how we are with our own children, yet how different we are towards the children in the sex trade. We don’t even have a proper understanding of multiple rapes!
Yet another anecdote I recollect goes back to when I was sitting with a group of pre-primary (Balwadi) children. I was pregnant at that time. Of the lot, there was a child around six and a half or seven, who was still in the Balwadi. A child aged around six said, “so-and-so boy so-and-so girl pe line maarta hai” (so-and-so boy is hitting on so-and-so girl). I feigned ignorance and pretended like I didn’t understand. A point came when one girl said that it meant the boy loves the girl. Still, I kept up the charade of being ignorant, and said, “Love is good. We should all love each other!” Then, the boy aged around seven asks me, “Are you really this ignorant? It is impossible that you are pregnant without understanding the kind of love they are talking about!”
That was when I realized how shy we are as adult caregivers and change-makers around the whole issue of sex and sexuality. It also struck me that because these children speak about sex, we as a society view them differently. But here is the point – Their only exposure, day in and day out has been this, of course they will speak about sex!
If you will see Prerana’s work, it is more about scaling deep for us. What it means is adding numbers to our program does not matter, what matters is handholding children throughout – till she or he is out of this space and develops into a responsible and financially independent young adult, away from the darkness of the Red-Light Area. Scaling deep for us, even then, wasn’t just about protection issues or giving them a place to stay, but about getting the children to channelize their understanding of sex and sexuality and getting society to understand why they were speaking about it.
During our initial years, our biggest challenge was social indifference, apathy and the lack of trust. For the outside world, we were ‘experimental and adventurous’ and they wouldn’t invest in children who, as per their assumption, were most likely to end up in the sex trade.
As and when we discovered problems in the Red-Light Area, we structured services that tried to offer solutions. The Night Care Center (NCC) was not just our first, but also a pioneer model globally. The NCC offered mothers a safe place to protect their children from dangers of the red light district during the critical night hours. Initially, even finding a space for NCC was difficult; people were not willing to give us the place because it would be frequented by prostitutes. Today, we have 4 NCCs providing a comprehensive package of services on a 24×7 basis such as: protected shelter, wholesome nutrition (3 meals in a day), free medical and health facilities, and education and recreational facilities.
The challenges posed by the traffickers and the pimps came much later. Initially, they were happy that we were educating the children. For them, higher education meant richer clients. However, the moment they recognized our struggles were to ensure these children walk the path towards freedom and a career beyond the sex trade, they began seeing it as an affront.
Eventually, we started our Educational Support Program, strengthened our Post Rescue Operations programs, set up a shelter home as a model for minimum standards of Care for girl children between the age of 8 to 18 years, expanded our work with children in need of care and protection, initiated an After Care project , a comprehensive program to address child sexual abuse and a project working for the protection of children rescued from beggary.
Amidst all this, the challenge that has persisted is the treatment of these children and women as criminals and not as victims. These are people suffering the worst form of exploitation, refused a chance to reintegrate with the mainstream. Of course, we continued to strive.
Let’s acknowledge that the recent decade has seen quite a change in the treatment of the issue by the government and policy makers. Human Trafficking is being viewed as a serious offence and child friendly laws and systems are being sought out in our provisions. However, that approach has still not rubbed off on to the civic society or the implementers of the law as it should. We are still struggling to adopt the law in its spirit. The stakeholders involved in the implementation of laws need to undergo sensitization and law trainings.
The bottom line – it is a long battle. We have just touched upon the surface. Although, what has been so crucial to all our accomplishments or the little work we have done is the collaborative support provided by the other NGOs, our partners, the police officials, the Child Welfare Committee and other stakeholders working with Children in Need of Care and Protection. Collaboration and unity is the key to working in this space.
The Evolution Of Technology & Society
Over the years, we grew and so did technology. We noticed the widening gap between the availability of and access to resources. This realization led to our latest development – the creation of an online Anti-Trafficking Resource portal – a knowledge hub focusing on research, publications, advocacy and policy in context with the broader human trafficking issue and its destination crimes, a platform to carry our advocacy efforts to a global level.
Recently, a young full bright scholar came to work with us, who asked what many people have been discussing and debating… What role does technology play in the trafficking cycle? Her argument was that with the advent of mobiles, people are able to reach sex workers faster, and manage to create awareness on HIV Aids prevention, on treatments available, monitor the ART etc. In ours years of work, and even recently, what we realised was a key factor to understand the impact and use of technology was the level of literacy…none of the girls or women we worked with had been to school or learnt how to read and write. Their level of usage of their phone was limited to handing over their phone to you and asking you to give yourself a missed call from their phone.
Leaving all biases aside we also new that technology was the new way of life. So we decided to test this theory and called 15 women from the community( redlight area) to ask them what they use their mobile phones for (we also called in a Times of India journalist to ensure this exercise was transparent and riddled with no biases). The responses were astounding… we learnt through conversations that mobile phones are giving pimps and negotiaters the power to control these women more than ever before. If they don’t answer their phones or respond immediately they get beaten up. Earlier they could hide before the pimps came, but today they are being traced with mobile phones.
Another aspect we decided to explore was online sex abuse and since we work on commercial exploitation of girls and women, we brought together data of 37 minor girls who had been rescued from the sex trade, to understand this side too. When we talk of technology, accessibility and proficiency are two key factors. What we learnt was more than 90% of the girls were not literate, and unaware of how to use mobiles and laptops, and 100% of them had no access before they were sold into the trade. One case stood out, of a young girl who befriended a woman on facebook, got invited to her birthday party at a restaurant and got rescued due to a police raid that happened thereafter.
One cannot deny that recruiting women and girls online or through mobiles will happen (and is happening) because of our growing dependency on technology and the so-called natural progression. But to say that today in a village of 24 Parganas girls are being recruited online, is not true. If we don’t capture the problem for what it is, we wont treat it right. We see trends across the world of more and more girls getting trafficked through online and through mobile apps, but that is hugely due of their literacy levels. In reality, technology has not reached the last mile in India.
Having been part of the work on sex trafficking for over 30 years, I have to admit that things have changed. The first case I ever took to the police station was of a child of a woman in the sex trade being raped within the brothel. When we tried to file an FIR the police said, “This is not rape, this is grooming…because girls born in the brothel will eventually end up there.” Today, when we go to the Police station they understand the Juvenile Justice Act, they understand why you need to respond immediately (in the golden hour) when a child goes missing. We no more need to beg the Police to protect these children under the Juvenile Justice Act . The CWC’s themselves are aware and apathetic to these cases today. While things have evolved slowly, the recent Bill to be tabled in the Monsoon session might be a step back for us.
The Last Mile – The Anti-Trafficking Bill
The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill to be tabled in the upcoming Monsoon session contentious and debatable. As of where it stands today, it will only end up complicating the existing legal framework on trafficking and its enforcement, and needs to be re-looked at immediately. There are 3 areas that come to mind as I try to visualise how this Bill can potentially play out- Designated courts, Rehabilitation and Prevention.
There are numerous destination crimes and they have been put under one bill. Firstly, how can implementers and stakeholders be expected to understand the nuances of these different dynamics? Secondly, courts today are over burdened and there is serious backlog even under POCSO etc. Now imagine the same court has a host of trafficking case for labour, both child and adult, adoption, sex trafficking/trade, trafficking cases for organs trade …each of these issues has it own set of layers and dynamics that do not get addressed through the Bill. With the already overburdened courts adding all these cases on to them is going to further delay justice .The Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act had the provision of special courts. Why have special courts? So that the legal team i.e the judge, the public prosecutor over time become specialised in that particular issue, be able to identify victims and perpetrators who keep coming back again, to identify re-trafficking and as a result be able to deliver justice effectively.
Then there is an entire section on Rehabilitation proposed under the bill, making provision for rehabiliation homes, protection homes amongst others. The bill titled Human Trafficking In Persons, includes both children and adults. There isn’t much thought given to this portion..Where are they going to keep the male adult victims? Along with the children and women? Riddled with biases, when one takes a look at this blanket bill on trafficking, meant to provide clear provisions for each type of trafficking, one can relate to the bill only in context to sex trafficking, but not to adoption, or organ trade. Call it a bias, but intergenerational trafficking has been severely neglected. If you look at any policy on trafficking, discussions, there is no mention of this, while in reality, there are thousands of children born into brothels, and they are the MOST vulnerable to be trafficked. They are easy, definite and free recruits for traffickers. The need of the hour is different prevention and interventions strategies for different types of destination crimes but this bill provides a one-solution-fits-all approach, highly regressive for the times.
Having worked on sex trafficking through Prerna, one is aware of the multi layers and angles involved even in sex trafficking. The whole issue of girls being recruited and sold from the community itself can be prevented. Recruitment through “legitimate” fronts like beauty parlours, event management, escort agencies, placement agencies, dance bars is happening . The issue is that the traffickers are using legal fronts to traffick girls, and our challenge becomes to strategise differently and prevent it from happening. There is technically nothing illegal about running a beauty parlour now.. is there?. Every establishment must follow norms/regulations/registrations and every establishment must be monitored by the government, and only with scrutiny/due diligence can we identify the illegal work happening under these businesses.
Prevention as a word and with intent has been mentioned in the bill, because it has been found to be important, therefore it needs to be given the right amount of weightage. Within prevention, it does not look at how to strengethen communities for prevention. It does not look at communities where culturally selling of girls into sex trade is a norm and how to prevent this from happening. What exists in the bill is a sweeping statement to include prevention, but not much emphasis on solutions and ideas on how. We need to look at faulty development policies and how they are hindering prevention. For example – The BMC opened its doors of municipal schools premises for NGO’s to run services for the underprivilged community in the neighbourhood. With the advent of the RTE, as child rights activists we pushed for inclusion of the 8th standard under the ambit of that legislation, which was turned around and used as a way to push NGO’s out of the school premises because the newly included 8th standard students would require facilities like science labs, and would therefore need all the rooms in the school. Decisions/ Policies like these leave already unattended communities even more vulnerable. While they received visibility, once again they are left vulnerable. Intergenerational trafficking in particular, the core of what we look into at Prerna today boasts of every child (who has grown up in this community brothel) in school. This has been our achievement in the red light area by the development of a community strengthening program being made accessible and available to children in the neighbourhood. We created a safety net, through a night care centre. Today those rooms are being taken away from us. What does it create? Vulnerability, yet again. Where is the government making provisions to tell all small and big government bodies that everytime you make a policy decision, ensure it doesn’t leave communities vulnerable.
Mobility, vulnerability and migration is the perfect ground for traffickers to fish their next prey. Pertinent aspects like these have been left out of the bill, highlighting that prevention has not been included in the true sense. Prevention cannot be limited to awareness, street plays during ganpati, start an anganwadi centre, start a adolescent program..prevention needs more depth and meaning. What we have been saying is the minute you strengthen prevention, the irreversable damage created by the entire trafficking process will be reverted. We are also saying that invest in prevention, because protection is far more expensive than prevention. Since there are always limited resources, why not invest in prevention first?