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Survivors Should Not Be Incarcerated In The Name Of Protection

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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.

How do we trust people who are appointed by the government to provide a safe haven for survivors?

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:

  1. No adult person should be forcibly institutionalised, and kept in shelter homes against their wish in the name of protection. Adults have a right to free mobility and should not be incarcerated for years in the name of protection.
  2. If it is deemed necessary for women and children to temporarily take refuge in a shelter home, we propose that these homes should not be like jails, they should be made more friendly and open.
  3. There should be proper mechanism to monitor these homes, which should be done by external agencies who are neutral.
  4. Surveys should be conducted by outsiders in a periodic manner, with private interviews so that the interviewees can share and open up to them, very similar to the people who interviewed the children and women in shelter homes in Bihar and spoke to them, which helped the girls and women report how they were being exploited.
  5. We in Utthan use a phone app to evaluate the usefulness of services that we receive from Panchayats, social workers and others. If the residents also get an opportunity to rate their social workers or their attendants like that, it can be an indicator of the functioning of the shelter home.
  6. Links need to be established between the Police and social workers at the destination and the source area, to locate the family of the women and children quickly, so that they don’t have to remain in the shelter home for long. We are told that the reason we spend so much time in shelter homes is that the coordination between governments and NGOs between the states takes long.
  7. Families of girls/women who are brought to the shelter home should be immediately contacted to send them home, and only girls/women whose family cannot be traced or whose legal proceedings requires them to stay should be kept in the shelter home.
  8. Utthan envisions a shelter home run by survivors themselves, which would not have closed doors or a prison-like feel.

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.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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