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The Problematic And Biased Case Of (Mis)Identifying Traffickers By Indian Railways

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By Azra Qaisar

Human Trafficking is a disguised crime and is not often easy to identify. In our work, with various stakeholders, we often emphasize that there are no set characteristics of gender, class, caste, or race that can be used to identify a trafficker or a victim. While communities that are less empowered socio-economically, tend to be more vulnerable to trafficking, it would be a generalization to claim that they are the only ones who get trafficked. A public awareness poster on human trafficking that is often used by the Indian Railways, and has been in use for at least two years now, has steered us again to discuss the issue of identification of traffickers and victims, and the politics of the image.

A Case Of Bias

The poster, which has been published in newspapers and can also be spotted at many railway stations, seeks that travellers stay alert while travelling to the presence of a victim of trafficking while travelling on the train. The intent of the poster is well-meaning, which is to prevent trafficking and to enable early interception. However, the poster itself creates misleading ideas of how traffickers or victims can be identified. 

The poster reads “Beware! The innocent face next to you could be a human trafficker”. The poster features an adult male, three children, and an adult female. In the version that was printed in newspapers, the face of the adult man has been blurred, leaving one a little confused about who the poster is claiming to be the trafficker. (The one referred in this blog has been taken from the twitter handle of Central Railways).

Since innocence is an attribute usually used to refer to children, a cursory look at the poster leaves one with the assumption that the child is being referred to as the trafficker. Even if this is overlooked, there is another crucial issue in the messaging of the poster. The representation of the people makes it look like they all belong to lower socio-economic groups, indicating that these are the groups to which traffickers and victims belong. While lower socio-economic classes are more vulnerable, generalization may not be the fairest and accurate way to represent either victims or perpetrators.

The identification of a victim through ‘malnourished appearance’, ‘lacking official identification’, ‘lacking belongings/possessions’ can be said to be indicative of a class bias.

In a country where a significant part of its population suffers from malnutrition and is often not aware or literate enough to possess official documentation, a poster like this can cause more harm by creating a stereotype about what a victim looks like. It also raises questions on whether the same criteria and attitude towards identifying traffickers would be employed in the First Class coaches of trains, or for those that use the airways, and belong to higher socio-economic groups, and hence may not fit the aforementioned description.

The poster makes a dangerous assumption of who a trafficker is, and unfairly assumes that only people with less financial means would resort to the crime. In a country, where there seems to be a pattern of laws being more often used against the poor, than the privileged, a poster as this comes across as irresponsible and misleading. It feeds into the society’s biases against certain groups which could lead to travellers becoming vigilantes, and wrongly identifying people as traffickers, based on their own biases. This could target innocent people in a bid to deliver instant street justice. 

Defining Suspicion, And Broadening Its Ambit

The poster makes a dangerous assumption of who a trafficker is, and unfairly assumes that only people with less financial means would resort to the crime/Representational image.

The poster further asks the travellers to contact their helpline, if a traveller seems ‘suspicious’ or if they spot a group of children/women with a ‘suspicious’ person. It is pertinent to note here that a person’s notion of suspicion is guided by their own socio-economic position. India is a very diverse nation with various communities, languages, cultures, and also biases. What seems suspicious in one region, or to one community, or one ideology, may not seem so to another.

Vague language like this could cause more harm than help since it asks people to apply their social bias to identify what qualifies as ‘suspicious’. If a child has signs of physical abuse and looks under duress, it is important to ask a child if they are in distress before taking any action. Otherwise, the situation can become a harrowing experience for the child if they are made to go through questioning, subsequent procedures, and are separated from a trusted adult. 

As observed in recently identified trends by Prerana too, traffickers often avoid travelling with the victims too. They might get into the train one station later and get off one station earlier to avoid being seen with the victims. Hence the clues given in the poster may not be quite relevant and hence, dated too.

Apart from this, the assumption of ‘stranger danger’, overlooks situations where traffickers are known to the victim.

In our experience, we have come across cases where the trafficker is a parent or a guardian. This is especially true of cases of inter-generational trafficking and labour trafficking. In such cases, the traffickers may be able to present all documents to show their relationship with the child and hence, not come under the scanner. We also have come across cases where the victims are migrating illegally, with the trafficker.

There are also situations where the victim does not even know that they are being trafficked and may be under the assumption that he/she is travelling to a new location for better opportunities. In such situations, the victims tend to protect the trafficker, and may not think of them as a stranger or dangerous, and also testify to state that they know and trust the trafficker. The poster, thus, runs a few steps behind the strategic intelligence applied by the traffickers.

Need For Better Communication

While we acknowledge that traffickers use the railways as a means to transport victims from the source to the destination and that travellers must be aware, it is equally important to not encourage misrepresentation.  There is a stereotype about the ‘villain’ in our minds, guided by our class and caste biases. In our experience of working with victims of human trafficking, we have observed that traffickers often belong to varied socio-economic backgrounds, and we try to highlight the same through our training and our meetings with stakeholders.

The poster also uses the images of children below 12 years but our field experience (documented in our Andhra Pradesh Report, and Indo Nepal Cross Report) tells us that children of older age groups are often victims of trafficking. Invasion of privacy and targeting of people from lower socio-economic groups could be potential outcomes of generic guidelines and must be avoided. 

In the recent past, India has witnessed many cases of mob justice and vigilantism upon suspicion. Public awareness posters must strive to be more responsible in their language and imagery to ensure that they serve the purpose that they have been designed for, instead of furthering unfair assumptions. It is essential that they do not feed into those biases when asking the public to be alert. Better and balanced communication to spread awareness should be the way forward.

This post was first published in Prerana’s online resource centre. To know more about human trafficking and issues of child protection in India, read here

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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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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.

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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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