(This is an account of a meeting I had back in 2009 with women trafficked from Bangladesh)
Bina* is not sure if she should be happy about the birth of her son. She sits staring at the 15-day-old child wriggling in her arms, leaning against a wall in a dimly lit room of the Government Vigilance Home in Mylapore, where she has been kept for the last eight months.
The woman, trafficked from a poverty stricken village in Bangladesh, was caught in a raid conducted by the Anti-vice squad of the police in a lodge in suburban Chennai. She says she had been brought to India by a broker in her village who promised to get her a job as a maid.
There are several others like her at this Home, who crossed the porous border between India and Bangladesh, mostly unwittingly, in the hope of finding a job that would help them survive and landed up instead in brothels and shady lodges in Indian metros.
Sheela*, the mother of two children, says an agent had convinced her family to send her to Dhaka to work as a maid. But this woman was first taken to Kolkata, then to Bangalore and finally to Chennai, where this broker, on whom she was completely dependent for everything, including food, would make her attend as many as 20 clients in a day.
The battered and bruised bodies of these women tell a sordid tale of exploitation. Nineteen-year old Tara* has dried wounds of deep cuts in her arms. When I ask her how she got them, she says with a shy smile, “Bhalobasha koreche.” (He made love to me). The perverted men whom they are made to service pay more money for allowing them to be abused…
More gruesome details come forth as the conversations continue, but it would be inappropriate to mention them all here. When these women get trapped in police raids and are confined to the Vigilance Home, it must perhaps come as a relief to them, isn’t it?
Sadly not. The superintendent of the home says, most women are desperate to get out and even willing to return to the sex trade because the lure for money is high. “A sex worker is like an alcoholic. They are addicted to abuse and unless there is holistic rehabilitation available they may not return to a life that is anything close to normal,” she says. “Many women suffer from emotional and psychological problems and the counseling facilities available here is not sufficient,” she adds.
The Vigilance Home currently has 75 women, mostly victims of trafficking. They come from states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra, and other countries like Nepal. There are a few girls from the North-East as well. The superintendent says most of them are innocent when they enter the trade, but once they are in they change. “They get addicted to alcohol and drugs. Some even begin to enjoy the new found financial independence, the freedom to roam the streets…”
In short, they are trapped. They do not or rather cannot get out of the trade as they have no other means to survive. G.Jebaraj, founder of the NGO Just Trust, says the police and the judiciary treat the victims of trafficking as if they are the accused. “Though trafficking in human beings for prostitution is an organised crime, the police investigation in these cases is very shoddy,” he says. “The conviction rates are negligible,” he adds.
Sources in the Anti-human Trafficking Cell of the CB-CID make no bones about this. They say that in most of the cases the witnesses turn hostile and the present whereabouts of many of the victims are not known, which is why they cannot produce them in court. In 2008, of a total 638 cases of trafficking for prostitution were booked by the police, for which only 13 offenders were apprehended and detained under the Goondas Act. In 2009, till September, a total of 417 cases of trafficking for prostitution were booked, for which only 6 offenders were detained under the Goondas Act.
Also, a total of 168 cases booked under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act are pending in various magistrates court. The police have also demanded a special court to be set up to dispose of these cases quickly. Jebaraj says if the trust of the victims can be won by promising them social support and rehabilitation after they step out of the Home, most of them will agree to cooperate with the police and reveal the identities of their traffickers. But no such confidence building measures are undertaken. Most of the women are handled roughly by the police, he says, and therefore they do not speak a word about their traffickers to them.
Shockingly, several orders given by magistrates courts do not even care to verify the antecedents of those who claim the custody of the victims. Jebaraj says sections 17 and 17A of the ITPA clearly stipulates procedures for verification before a victim of trafficking is released from judicial custody. But these provisions are not strictly adhered to. Recently a woman from Bangladesh was handed over to the custody of her husband, though NGO reports have verified that the husband, an illegal migrant, was the trafficker. He had forced the woman to enter prostitution in Bangalore. This woman, along with six others, escaped from the Vigilance Home last month.
In fact, there have been several cases of women running away from the Vigilance Home and it is not surprising why. The women are constantly under watch. They are totally cut off from the outside world. They cannot contact their family or anyone else over phone as the vigilance staff fear they may contact their brokers and return to sex work. In short, they are treated like the accused, while their traffickers roam scot-free.
When I went to the Home to meet the women, most of them complained about not being able to talk to their children or relatives. I handed over my mobile phone to them and they eagerly made calls to their sisters, friends and children. Some women pleaded that I help them to get out of the Home as they felt caged inside. The women from Bangladesh told me that they were craving to eat fish and rice which was not provided at the Home.
The Superintendent said fish was not allowed to be served as it had bones in it and the women could use it to kill themselves. Some women have turned out to be suicidal too. As I was leaving the Home, the superintendent thanked me for making the women feel better. “Most of them are plotting to get out by hook or by crook. You have instilled some confidence in them. They need someone to talk to. Please do come again” – were her parting words…