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How Do We Protect The Vulnerable From Trafficking In The Aftermath Of COVID?

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

The Covid-19 lock-down has affected the most vulnerable populations who are being exposed to a host of problems and human trafficking (TIP) is one of them.

Paul* (name changed) was among the 7 migrant workers from Assam’s Karbi Anglong district rescued in Chennai on 21 May 2020. They were persuaded by a recruiting agent with food and shelter. Paul’s former employer had left them on their own to starve as the lock-down was imposed.

With no money and place for shelter, they had to hop from one place to another in search of food. The language barrier made it even more difficult for them to communicate their desire to return back to their native places. Paul and his friends were provided food after being rescued by the Tamil Nadu police officials and sheltered in SR College premises. Today they are safe and back at their native home.

Representational image.

The vulnerability of the ‘at-risk population’, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds, to social exploitation was of serious concern even before lockdown began. With the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the situation is likely to worsen. It is extremely critical to protect the millions who may become potential victims of forced labour and trafficking in the aftermath of the crisis.

Research studies done in the past have shown that patriarchal norms and poverty are common contributors in most trafficking situations. Meanwhile, another significant factor to consider is that during and post any disaster there has always been a high surge in the trafficking of women and children.

As a large number of poorer sections drop into poverty and dire distress, the consequences are likely to worsen. It is, therefore, critical to address the vulnerabilities in the aftermath of a crisis like COVIDCovid-19, where:

  • Most of the migrant poor remain excluded from accessing resources and opportunities due to lack of knowledge about their basic rights to health, and economic and social entitlements. This situation can lead to them returning back home like they are currently, with limited work options in their villages and resorting to borrowing money from lenders or factory/industry owners to sustain themselves and their families. This may lead to debt bondage and violence and exploitation by the money lenders.
  • The huge financial burden induced by the lock-down can lead to poorer families becoming more prone to risky and fraudulent employment through informal channels, migration and sometimes even faulty marriages. In a press release published by Childline India, it reported that there has been a huge surge in child marriages during the lockdown period. As millions of children are already out of school and do not have access to any protective network they become an easy target of trafficking for bonded labour or commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Due to the social distancing norms, the demand for commercial sex has reduced, but there is a rapid rise in online abuse of women and children. The India Internet Report, 2019 by the IAMAI indicates a rise in new users from India on online spaces from 2018 to 2019. The report also mentions that this surge was caused by a huge influx of rural users, school-going children and women. It clearly indicates that a larger number of vulnerable users are on the internet than ever before — children, women, and users from lower socio-economic zones. As traffickers have moved from in-person recruitment to digital platforms, the access to technology provides easy means for traffickers to groom and mark their targets online.
  • As the lockdown is lifted, the large scale company and factory owners, in order to make up for the economic losses, may resort to unauthorized subcontracting of cheap labourers where workers end up in harsh working conditions, facing abuse and violence from their owners.

Preventing And Protecting The Vulnerable From Trafficking

While it is significantly important to provide support, food and shelter urgently to those who are stranded and have no source of support, it is pertinent to invoke a sense of urgency caused due to this humanitarian crisis.

It is important to proactively track the situation of vulnerable people stranded in the cities and those who have returned home. This will require an intentional effort to create economic opportunities, to address issues of trafficking of persons, at the source, transit and destination hotspots. Skill mapping both in the source and destination areas is important to be able to match the skills of the workers. 

Representational image.

A holistic multifaceted approach keeping women and children at the heart of all government and NGO-led interventions to prevent and address risks of trafficking is important to consider in order to prevent the malaise of trafficking and abuse.

We need to create a safe space for children and women at their homes and neighbourhoods, ensuring that a “trusted network” is established to report and call out any kind of abuse at homes, schools or in the neighbourhood. 

As lockdowns are lifted, factories and businesses can proactively make mandatory rules on ethical supply chain procedures, from recruitment to employment, by adopting heightened systems of accountability. It is not enough to consider the risk to factories and big businesses alone. We must also consider the risks involved for the people working in these factories and industries, who can be affected and exploited directly or indirectly.

Human Trafficking is possibly the worst form of human rights violation. It is therefore significant and moral responsibility on the part of common masses and the lawmakers to prevent and protect the most vulnerable, as we take steps to reform our systems and structures in the post lockdown period.

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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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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