We are extremely angry, disturbed and concerned after reading Joshua Caroll’s report on 23rd November 2018, in the Guardian about forced institutionalization of women and children in a shelter home run by an NGO Prajwala, in Hyderabad. Earlier this year, we had also read about a woman committing suicide in the same shelter home because she was traumatized in the shelter home. This year itself, we also read about how young girls were sexually exploited in shelter homes by those who own and run such places.
We are shocked that under the guise of welfare treatment- victims in shelter homes are reported to be mentally, physically and sexually tortured. It is nothing but the blatant abuse of power of the people who are in charge of such homes.
In Utthan, we are all survivors of sexual trafficking. We have experiences of sexual exploitation and torture; experiences which we cannot forget. We have seen how traffickers and brothel managers conduct their business in secrecy and fear because they know that they might get punished if they are caught. However, some people who run the shelters seem to have little fear for retribution or shame in violating children and women they claim to protect.
Each of us at Utthan has spent as long as two to three years in different shelter homes in India after we were rescued and in our lives, those years have been a complete waste for us. Neither did the ‘vocational training’ help us later in getting a job, nor did we find the ‘counseling’ helpful in dealing with stigma in our families and communities, nor did the police or courts prosecute the traffickers who are in our villages. They only focus on brothel managers and madams. Without any fault of ours we are forcibly kept in institutions for protection and rehabilitation- and it feels no less than a prison for us.
Our movements were restricted, we are not allowed to venture out alone, we were not allowed to talk to our families, our conversations with outsiders, like lawyers, visitors, families were under constant surveillance, the content of our conversations were often cross-checked with us and with other inmates, who happened to be in the room or knew the language. We were even punished physically when we refused to eat food that was badly cooked and inedible. This led to frustration and anger in the girls, and who then either took it out on others or themselves through self-mutilation as they were unable to express their rage and grief in any other way. And the never-ending wait to be at home with family continues without any hope, as the home staff never shared any information about the reason for the delay. Ironically, when we are subjected to this treatment, the traffickers roam around freely, making their next plan of which girl to target.
Utthan is strongly against forced institutionalisation of women who are 18 years and above. However, from our experience we know and agree that once a girl is rescued from the brothel, she has to be taken to a temporary safe place, since sometimes the brothel madams/pimps try to contact the victim to threaten her, coerce her and intimidate her to not reveal their names or share with the police or court that she was being exploited. Shelter homes are also necessary for tracing the family of the girls, it is a place where the girls can be on their own after coming out from a traumatic environment. Our fight is not against temporary institutionalization, but against the forced detention of the rescued girls, against the closed door policy in the institutions, against the ill-treatment and torture in the homes.
Keeping this context in mind, Utthan would like to offer some suggestions based on our experiences and learning about how shelter homes could be made safer and better for women and children:
We, therefore, are in support of the new Trafficking of Persons Bill (Protection, Rehabilitation and Prevention) 2018, since this is the first Bill in India that recognizes the right of a ‘rescued person’, when produced to the court, to reject institutionalisation and rehabilitation among many other salient features of the Bill. This Bill also talks about punishment for dereliction of duty by the person-in-charge of the protection homes or rehabilitation homes, which we think is extremely important. Overall we think this Bill is extremely victim centric and if passed in Rajya Sabha, would benefit many other survivors of human trafficking.
One thing which we think is a positive change is the fact that narratives of violence against women are coming out in the open, be it in shelter homes, office spaces, their own homes etc. We think just like the #MeToo campaign, by talking about this issue and sharing of experiences, we are able to generate more awareness and we think that by supporting the TOP Bill, change is bound to happen.