survivors of Trafficking & Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation not criminals – Don’t detain us in shelters which are like prisons _ VIMUKTHI Demands
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MINISTER FOR WOMEN & CHILD WELFARE, Government of Telangana
Smt. Satyavathi Rathod
Hon’ble Minister for Women & Child Welfare
Government of Telangana
Special Secretary to Government,
Dept of Women Development and Child Welfare
Government of Telangana
Commissionerate of Women Development & Child Welfare.
H.No. 8-3-222, Vengalrao Nagar,
BesideMadhuranagar Metro Station,
Ameerpet, Hyderabad – 500038
Respected Smt. Satyavathi Rathod, Hon’ble Minister for Women & Child Welfare, Govt of Telangana
Respected Special secretary to Government, Dept of Women & Child welfare, Govt of Telangana
Respected Commissioner, Dept of Women Development and Child Welfare, Govt of Telangana
With this letter we, the Members of Vimukthi -A State Level forum of Sex workers and survivors of trafficking and HELP organization, would like to express our utmost concern regarding the issues and challenges facing by the rescued victims of trafficking with regard to their rehabilitation, re-integration and victim-witness protection services which have been taking place both in Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over the last few years. Further, we wish to bring few concerns over the issue of 14 women escaped from the Government funded shelter home in Hyderabad and over the response by the Joint Director (Schemes), Dept of WD&CW, Govt of Telangana on this incident.
That 14 women would have escaped from Government funded shelter home in Hyderabad may be distressing, if not surprising. One wonders what would have triggered a group of young women run away from a shelter, breaking open a metal grille of a window. As an organisation that has run shelters for survivors of trafficking and children of sex workers for 22 years, HELP is well aware of the challenges involved in running institutional care facilities and can speculate on some of the reasons that residents in such shelters may have wanted to leave the shelter home. What is further distressing is the statement reported in various news articles by the Joint Director (Schemes), Dept of Women and Child Welfare, Govt of Telangana claiming that the survivors of trafficking ran away because they wish to continue in sex work, and that nothing was wrong with the services/ conditions in shelters. According to Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust, the organisation that runs the shelter, the women may have fled because they were afraid of being stuck in the shelter for a long time. One of the women who escaped the shelter had petitioned the court for release, and the court rejected her plea.
This incident exemplifies everything that is wrong with the current system of rehabilitation of survivors of sex trafficking.
- Why should a survivor of sex trafficking have to plea to the Court for ‘release’? Survivors of sex trafficking who are institutionalised in these shelters have long complained about the fact that they are institutionalised in these closed homes, they are barred from leaving the premises, they have no rights to decide whether they wish to return to their families or simply leave the shelter. Survivors ask a fundamental question – ‘if we are the victims of exploitation, and someone else is the culprit, why should be be subjected to forced detentions in these shelters which then becomes nothing short of incarceration for us? What are we being punished for?’ Thus, every shelter home that provides institutional care to survivors of sex trafficking have to be closed, survivors have to remain in these shelters for months and years, their freedom is mortgaged until the judicial courts allow their release, and this is exactly what is terribly wrong in the system.
- Why should women who wish to continue in sex work be institutionalised in shelters? A statement by the Joint Director of the Women and Child Development Department of Telangana mentioned that these women want to continue in sex work and therefore they escaped, and that nothing was wrong with the shelter or its services. It raises a fundamental question as to why a survivor of sex trafficking, who was rescued with her volition and participation, would want to return to sex work? Why a facility meant for survivors of sex trafficking should be used to incarcerate women who wish to continue in sex work in the first place? Agencies running such shelters would argue that survivors of trafficking are victims of manipulation, threats and intimidation and intense psychological torture where they are afraid to break away from their traffickers and get out of sex work. And therefore, even after they may have been rescued with their volition and participation, they may still wish to return once the panic sets in. This argument then is used to justify the suspension of rights to freedom, to self determination by survivors of human trafficking and the bureaucracy and the judiciary usurps all rights to decide her fate thereafter, and unconstitutionally so. Repeatedly, High Courts across different states in India have asserted that the State has no right to withhold adult women, even if they are survivors of trafficking, even if they would want to return into sex work, in institutions without consent. That the fourteen women had to break the grille in the dead of the night, at 2 AM, only speaks of the degree of incarceration they would have been in. It is a matter of concern and disappointment that the State agencies, specially meant to look after the rights of women and children, should find nothing wrong with facilities meant for rehabilitation of voluntary residents becoming jails for a set of people who have committed no crimes and whose rights to mobility and freedom have been unconstitutionally suspended.
- Why should the Court have rejected a plea by an adult survivor of trafficking to leave the shelter? This practice, of forcibly detaining survivors of human trafficking in shelters, is common in several judicial courts across the country. The reason the court decides so is because public prosecutor’s office does not want to lose their key witness of the case (of trafficking) because the prosecutor gets this witness to depose during the trial and stand cross examination. The prosecutor’s reason for not wanting survivors to return back to their families is because there is a high risk that the survivors may not be available to the prosecution at the time of trial and without the participation of the survivor in the trial as a witness, the prosecution’s case becomes very weak. The reason survivors often do not wish to return to the courts for trial is because after returning to their families and communities, they are left to fend for themselves, fighting poverty, unemployment, lack of financial security, stigma and its related violence and abuse in the family or community. None of the states in India, including Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have a policy of Community Based Rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking, presently Panchayats or the District Administration have no clarity or accountability of their roles and responsibilities in ensuring availability and accessibility to rehabilitation services by survivors of trafficking.
- Why is it that survivors of sex trafficking must only find rehabilitation services in shelter homes? Victims of sex trafficking are sent to shelter homes for protection and rehabilitation, is the argument for institutionalising them. Yet, long term institutionalisation in these shelters disconnects them from their families and communities, it deprives them of mainstream services and education or work, vocational trainings offered in these shelters are informal and often poor in quality because the salaries that these shelters can afford for these trainers are low which affects the quality of these trainings and these trainings are most often not market oriented. Yet, rehabilitation is far more successful when survivors are provided with services in their communities, be it mainstream health services, formal education or for livelihoods. Why is it then Ujjawala provides for rehabilitation only in shelter homes and provisions for community based rehabilitation is meagre or absent? What happens to survivors after they return home, after spending years in these shelter homes, where they have to then deal with poverty, stigma and unemployment? It is sad that the Women and Child Development departments across India, and certainly in Telangana does not recognise the dysfunctionality in the current policy on shelter homes, and lack of rehabilitation services that survivors of sex trafficking needs. Has it ever occurred to the State that many survivors of sex trafficking feel that being incarcerated in shelters is a worse option than being in sex work – which is why escaping and running away has been a pattern in shelter homes across the country? What does that say about the effectiveness of this rehabilitation approach?
- Why is it that survivors of trafficking are now being treated as criminals for having chosen to assert their right to freedom from forced detention? Efforts are on by the police to ‘trace the women’ and if found, they would be forcibly returned to the shelter home. Effectively, they are going to be penalised for having asserted their human rights, even though they have committed no crime. Its not the fault of the police – they are doing their job, and it is not the fault of the organisation running the shelter, for it is their job to take custody of the women that the court has granted. And yet, there is no one to listen to the women who have been trying to find a voice in the system that decides for them and imposes its decisions onto them ‘for their own good’. If this is not travesty of justice, what is? The lack of empathy from the department responsible for the welfare of all women in this country, whether they are survivors of trafficking or voluntary sex workers, is shocking.
- Does the law allow for survivors of human trafficking to be considered as persons with diminished capacity of discernment and choice for their own well being? In this case, all of the 14 women are adults, and therefore the right to self determination cannot be questioned, their rights to freedom are guaranteed constitutionally. While the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act does allow the State to institutionalise survivors in shelter homes, no where does it allow for incarceration or these institutions to be closed that suspend survivors rights to exit. Nor does the ITPA allow for forced detention of adult women, even if they are survivors of sex trafficking. And even if they were children, which in this case it is not, the Juvenile Justice Act strongly recommends that institutionalisation should be the last choice for rehabilitation of children, and non institutional forms of care and protection must be considered, which is never explored by the government.
Our choices in life are always between the options and we choose what is better between the options, or if all options are bad, then we choose what seems to be less bad. Presently, for survivors of sex trafficking, the option of being incarcerated in shelter homes, where they have no rights to freedom, mobility, choices of what to eat and where, whom to talk to, when to leave are all taken away from them, where they have no access to legal services to fight for their freedom, where they are held hostage by the state to depose in trials that may take years for investigation and prosecution, is worse than being in sex work. It may not mean that they are used to sex work, they want to be sex workers or any other meaning we may make of it. If we really wish to understand why these 14 women would have run away from shelter homes, please listen to survivors who have been incarcerated in shelter homes for years.
As an organisation having run shelter homes for years, we would be happy to support this dialogue between survivors of sex trafficking who have stayed in shelters and the Women and Child Development Departments of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and other states of India.
Note: pl visit the bellow Time of India story news link….