Learning from many wrongs may lead to a few rights

My earlier article ‘The Issue of Forced Institutionalisation of Adults in Shelter Homes’ ( evoked an article by Kimberly Walters (, a cultural anthropologist, an academic who teaches at the California State University. Although we have not been formally introduced, we are both members in a virtual group that has been in discussion over the same issues of human trafficking, policy and State responses. In my experience, the debates between abolitionists (those who oppose all forms of prostitution) and those who do not agree with abolitionism has been entrenched and stuck in rhetorics and degenerated into suspicion of intent, character and accusations. Over the last couple of years, during the making of the Trafficking of Persons’ Bill in India, all attempts to reach out to different activists of both ‘sides’ were frustrating, I found myself trying to convince them of my intent to dialogue, not convert or win an argument, and my need to engage in dialogue comes from the despair that ideological battles eat off the people at the heart of those ideological issues and do not benefit them. So, Kimberly’s response and invitation for dialogue is very heartening and I hope, those in the sidelines listening to us and nodding vertically or sideways at different moments, will also join in, and build this conversation.

There are agreements between us and the parts which seem to indicate a differential understanding, perhaps raises questions on where does the difference emanate from. We resonate on the harms of forced rescue and forced institutionalisation, and the impact that it may have on a woman, the violation of her rights in the name of protection. There are three fundamental issues that seem to require some discussion. The first issue is the numbers, percentages, statistics on children in prostitution, trafficked women in sex work and those who are voluntarily in sex work. The second question is on the notion of force, what constitutes bonded labour or debt bondage and what should e read as voluntary. The third question is whether, and to what extent, the Trafficking of Person’s Bill recognises volition of persons in sex work, whether it ensures autonomy of a person being deemed as a victim by the police and the her agency to determine for herself whether she wants, needs assistance in rehabilitation or not.

The number game:

1. Sahni and Shankar, and others whom Walters have drawn data from, have chosen respondents from amongst those sex workers who have been mobilised through targeted interventions under the National and State AIDS Control programme. These respondents are women and girls, who are in sex work at the time of participating in this research, some of who (like in Sangram’s research Raided) may have been ‘rescued’ at some point, incarcerated in shelter homes, providing some services for intended rehabilitation, and then they returned. Sahni and Shankar clarifies in the Pan India Survey of Sex Workers that the sample of 3000 female sex workers was age distributed but restricted to respondents above 18.

2. Researches like Banerjee and Bandopadhyay (Where Have All The Flowers Gone), Sen and Dasgupta (Bringing It All Back Home) drew their respondents from girls and women who were rescued and had returned back to their homes and communities. These respondents, at the time of participating in the research, were not in sex work, were not institutionalised or living in any NGO or state run shelter (open or closed). The researchers accessed them through community based organisations who were providing them with services to avail services from Panchayats, hospitals, administrative offices and local police stations.

Because of the politicisation and deep polarisation on the issue itself, the former group of researches have faced barriers in being able to extend their samples to survivors who are in shelter homes, and the latter have found it difficult to extend their samples and access sex workers through the AIDS control programmes. Sangram’s sample, for example, has amongst its respondents those who returned to sex work after being ‘rescued’ and institutionalised, and does not include survivors who did not return to sex work. Likewise, Sanjog’s researches has not been able to learn from women and girls who may have been rescued, received rehabilitation services and yet ended up back in sex work. Such limitations in sampling will impact data, interpretations, inferences. It does not negate or invalidate the findings of the researches of either category - but simply suggests that both the categories of researches will observe and find data, and make inferences that are complementary and not competing. For example: researches which are conducted with survivors who have returned home and stayed back will have a higher percentage of girls and women who may have chosen not to return to sex work (for various reasons) as opposed to sex workers who have never left or returned to it.

There could be other reasons for disparate data - and that lies in the construction of tools and questions, whether the research is deterministic or exploratory, how entrenched the researcher is in his/her personal politics and how skilled the people are in using heuristic methods, or what Sahni and Shankar calls ‘the researcher’s gaze’. But that apart, the spectrum of sampling and the limitations therein, are one of the reasons why findings may be strongly disparate.

Over the last 5 years, one of the platforms that I have relied on to understand trends in trafficking and rescue is a data management platform which is populated by 13 NGOs running shelters and those who provide family reunification and reintegration services in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. These are girls and women who have been rescued from prostitution by the police, with or without the tip offs from NGOs, through raids or targeted rescues (but more through raids), as well as survivors who may have escaped the brothel with the help of clients or other sex workers or on their own. The MIS tells us the age of entry of the girl or woman into sex work and the age of exit, and this sample - drawn from 5 years from 2 states, offers us an idea on trends. The database is certainly not exhaustive at all, and does not record data of girls and women in prostitution who have not been ‘rescued’. However, since the rescues triggered by raids does not offer discretion between those in servitude and voluntary sex workers, or adults and children, the chances of that data having a higher percentage of adults in that sample may be considered. So, when I make a statement that ‘most of them seem to be trafficked between 15 and 18, and rescued between 18 and 21’, this is the basis of my reading. I have compared this data with other NGOs involved in rescues and those who run shelters or those who run community based rehabilitation programmes - and they have corroborated this observation with their own data as well.

Debt, Bondage and Force:

The interpretation of force should not be extended to financial compulsion, it should be restricted to physical violence, ‘cheating’ (or fraud), blackmail (coercion) or direct ways of compelling someone to do something, argues Walters. She quotes 6 separate researches including her own, which found that the vast majority of sex workers are not forced to be in sex work. She resonates with me that whether or not a person was trafficked into sex work at the time of entry does not say anything about her context at the time of ‘rescue’, and that ITPA does not recognise the possibility that a person may not wish to be rescued, further quoting the research by Sangram Raided. Her, and several others who have argued that the Trafficking of Person’s Bill does not recognise that there are sex workers in prostitution voluntarily, is a reinforcement of the ITPA held assumption that all sex workers are in servitude, and therefore bestows the police with enormous and arbitrary powers to raid and rescue any sex worker regardless of her choice. She disagrees with the contention that I offer that the Trafficking of Person’s Bill (2018) recognises autonomy of a person to reject State imposed rehabilitation.

So, let us start at a point where we agree on. We both agree that some girls and women (let us set the disagreement over numbers aside) entering prostitution are in debt bondage.How is the debt incurred and to whom? The brothel manager pays the trafficker in exchange of the trafficked person, and now the trafficked person has incurred a debt that she must pay through forced prostitution. As explained by survivors of sex trafficking, this trafficked person initially refuses and resists, and subsequently through torture in different degrees, accept that there is no way out unless she pays off the debt and therefore agrees to provide sex to customers till she pays off debts. In the process, the person also fears that now that she ‘crosses the cardinal threshold and has sex for money’, if her family gets to know about it they will reject her. Over time, the same person, once she accepts to prostitute and the rules of the trade, also gains power and privileges if she earns the trust of the brothel manager that she won’t try to escape. If and when she pays off her debt, as she gets older, she also becomes more autonomous, may have relationships and children, and by now, her priorities may have changed. This is a linear trajectory, there are variations and nuances in each case. What we therefore agree on is the response of this person to being rescued will differ between the primary stage (within the first month of her being trafficked) and over the following months and years. And therefore, if this person is rescued and institutionalised after she has paid off debts and gained some degree of autonomy, she will not find it helpful - because this does not take away the exploitation and violence that she may have suffered in the past, and does not take into account her current context.

The dilemma that the drafters of the Trafficking of Person’s Bill were encountered with is - if this is the trajectory, what would be a fair process of consent taking or giving? What is that process that will allow a person to declare one’s volition without threat, intimidation and fear, whether the person was trafficked or not, whether the person has suffered debt bondage or not, whether the person continues to live in debt bondage or not, and whether the person chooses to seek rehabilitation services or not. Survivors of sex trafficking who engaged with the process of making of the Bill (Utthan, a survivors’ collective) ruled out the option of being asked at the time of rescue, arguing that in front of the brothel manager, pimps and others, it would not be possible for them to speak. For her to speak without any external threats, she would need a neutral space and skilled interviewers. While the drafters suggested various steps and processes, the concerned authorities argued that detailing such processes in a bill makes the law very rigid and all operational processes should be set in the National Model Rules and State Rules. Concretely, the due timeline for 164 statements (where the person gets to make her statement to the magistrate, in confidence), the rules for what happens when a person requests for assistance in other forms but not through institutionalisation, the accountability rules for NGOs running shelters, how to ensure that the person has independent legal aid, all should be formed in the rules, and monitored by agencies designated in the law. The efficiency of this system will depend on how survivors of sex and labour trafficking, and affected communities, and other stakeholders will engage with the implementation of this law and strengthen accountability.

Community based programmes:

One of the biggest limitations I see in the current discourse is that there are very few approaches for community based protection/rehabilitation models to address human trafficking that have been proposed, as an alternative to prevailing rescue and institutionalisation. Here are a few community based interventions that have been tried, and it may be worthwhile to evaluate their effectiveness and sustainability and argue for their incorporation in state actions for protection and prevention, and rehabilitation, while expanding on the operationalisation of the programme:

1. The community based intervention model that had been proposed by DMSC or Sangram wherein a self governance board is formed in a red light area screens all women entering prostitution to determine whether they are trafficked or not, whether they are of age of consent or not has been found to inadequate and inconsistent. Over the last decade, both organisations report to have found cases of minors or adults being trafficked, and protected them from being sold into servitude and returned them back home. However, there has been no reporting or indictment of traffickers who brought them there or brothel managers who flouted these norms. The more powerful brothel managers or owners, remained out of the control of these boards and the boards have not been able to challenge their power and impunity.;

2. The second community based rehabilitation and protection approach is to shift the focus from institutionalisation to offering services to victims in their own families, particularly for those who wish to stay in their families. The biggest weakness in anti trafficking interventions is the focus on shelter based rehabilitation, and the institutionalisation period being one to three years according to the provisions under the ITPA. This model, which has been tried in West Bengal, by 10 community based rural organisations like GGBK and Partners in Anti Trafficking (a network of 8 CBOs) assists survivors in reintegration by building their access to services, legal aid and helping them mobilise and organise themselves to fight stigma, discrimination and violence in the community.

3. The other rehabilitation model that have been tried out by a few organisations are when survivors do not have to return back home, where they live in open shelters, in shared apartments or self managed group homes (often short term and transitionary until they move out) with specific forms of assistance and services from social workers, where the focus is, once again, to strengthening life skills and building access to services and employment.

And there are others that I may not be aware of.

The questions that we shall collectively need to address, and I am keen to hear from Walters and others are:

1. We agree that there should be no forced rescue of adult voluntary sex workers. And we all agree that there should be no person forced into prostitution. How should the screening be done, and by whom, in your opinion?
2. Do you have any data on indictment and prosecution of traffickers identified and reported by the self regulatory boards?
3. We agree that non brothel based sex work is much larger than brothel based sex work. The HIV AIDS prevention programmes, through targeted interventions, mobilise non brothel based sex workers (which are also referring to as ‘flying’ sex workers), but does it have a community mechanism? What has been its ability to detect and report trafficking and child sexual exploitation?
4. NACO guidelines direct service delivery organisations to restrict services to adults. When such TIs encounter minors, they either provide them services off the record or reject them from testing or other services. What has been your experience? How can you see such interventions integrating an anti trafficking approach with the service delivery on prevention of HIV AIDS?

Look forward to a continued dialogue.

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