Without economic prospects, trafficking victims in India have little choice but to be exploited again
It's difficult to engage with survivors of human trafficking in India. Sensational media reports, an unresponsive criminal justice system, and a lack of economic opportunities are just some of the factors complicating the process. Yet, there are inspiring examples from parts of India where survivors have overcome these challenges and made their voices heard.
A melodramatic media
Survivors' groups and anti-trafficking experts in India criticise the dramatic portrayal of human trafficking victims in the media. They take issue with reporters' focus on distress and their frequent willingness to compromise victims' privacy and safety to get lurid detail and eye-catching footage. Such stories, they argue, must be balanced with positive stories of empowerment, engagement and activism.
"The media never talks about our resilience, activism, and leadership. Because we are portrayed as ill-fated victims, we are seen as useless, and this does not help us," one survivor said. "People fail to see our courage and what we do once we are shown the way. For example, our activism has ensured that victims get compensation, which is a triumph. But no one knows about it."
As a journalist and a researcher working on issues of human trafficking, I have participated in producing the kinds of stories they criticise. For example, in an assignment for an international media outlet a decade ago, I travelled with a production team to the India-Bangladesh border to interview a survivor of human trafficking who was rescued and reunited with her family.
We came with a lot of equipment, and the entire village surrounded the survivor's house to find out what was going on while we filmed. I did not realise it then, but our actions inadvertently put the family at risk. And our documentary, while popular with viewers, did nothing to improve the survivor's life. This is often the case. Activists say sensational media stories rarely help, as the focus is never on what works to prevent human trafficking.
Lack of empathy in the criminal justice system
The systems theoretically set up to help, meanwhile, can be traumatising in their own right. This is frequently the case when they run through law enforcement. Ram Mohan, the president of NGO HELP, which runs empowerment programmes for survivors, explained that the apathy of law enforcement officials towards victims of human trafficking is deeply entrenched because most survivors come from poor sections of society. Their cases are rarely prioritised, which can prolong trials, lead to a loss of evidence, and result in the acquittal of traffickers.
When asked, a group of survivors in Kolkata explained how they faced systemic humiliation and harassment in their quest for justice. "When we were rescued, we ran from pillar to post - police, lawyers, and welfare departments - to get compensation," one said. "They would say, 'first you run away, and now you come to us for help.' It was a big challenge even to access various schemes. And in most cases, we never got [compensation]." According to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department, between 2010-2018 less than 1% of trafficking victims were proactively awarded compensation by the Indian courts.
Relations with law enforcement, however, are not immutable. Representatives from Vasavya Mahila Mandala, an NGO in southern India, said their community-led action programme with the police has resulted in better treatment of human trafficking survivors. Funded by USAID, this programme brought survivors and police officers together to identify and discuss barriers survivors face when dealing with the police, such as inadequate legal assistance and victim protection schemes.
The process led to the creation of Mahila Mitra (friends of women), a survivor-led programme that has trained over 100 survivors on accessing legal support. These now work with the police to help other survivors navigate the legal system. Mahila Mitra operates across 1258 police stations, up from 21 in 2019.
Women survivors' collectives have emerged across India, led by survivors turned leaders with support from larger organisations. One such group is Utthan, which provides peer-to-peer support while working to mobilise survivors across the state of Kolkata. It also collaborates with the international forum Survivor Alliance to provide leadership training sessions.
At the level of national policy, the group advocates for a more comprehensive law to fight human trafficking for exploitation, sexual or physical. Uma Chatterjee, the founder of the civil society organisation Sanjog, argued that donors must invest more in survivors' collectives. "When survivors talk among themselves, they form camaraderie and confidence, which gives a sense of hope," she said. "They begin to relate with others and realise there are others like her in a similar situation. That way, a collective is created. They derive strength from each other. It helps them to overcome trauma and build resilience."
Survivors confirmed that, acting alone, their demands to access welfare schemes or justice were rarely successful. But their voices were heard when they spoke collectively. "It is impossible to create awareness alone, or with a small group of women," one said. "Bigger numbers and stronger voices are needed. So we create groups to make the movement strong, and to be capable enough to fight for our rights."
Economic empowerment: the key to meaningful engagement
Gaining 'voice', however, is not the only form of empowerment survivors need to engage effectively. Several complained to me that despite their empowerment and high level of engagement for the survivors' cause, they struggle to find stable, income-generating opportunities. "Today, I am a confident woman ready to take up any challenges as far the survivors' issues are concerned," one said. "However, where we lack is that we still do not have a stable source of income or job security. We are not fully financially independent, and that remains a challenge."
One programme that won global accolades for promoting the economic empowerment of survivors is the Beti Zindabad Bakery, set up with the support of the local state government. It trains survivors in baking skills and helps them set up their own bakeries elsewhere. Such success stories, however, are rare. Models like Beti Zindabad need to be significantly scaled up, and other promising ideas need to be piloted.
As one senior UN official in Delhi emphasised: "Everything boils down to the ability to earn a decent income."
This point was echoed over and over again. Activists fear that failing to address employment issues increases the vulnerability of survivors going forward. Since most survivors are unskilled, they are likely to accept risky jobs that can entrap them into other forms of modern slavery unless safe options are available to them. One of the ways to address this is to develop job-oriented training programmes for survivors.
A new era in survivor leadership
Survivor-led advocacy in India is entering a new era. Across the country, survivors are uniting through collectives and actively campaigning with the help of civil society organisations on issues like victim compensation, reintegration processes, and an insensitive law enforcement system.
Similar changes are also being seen elsewhere in the region. Across much of south Asia, the concept of using survivors' knowledge and experience in preventing human trafficking is growing. Most survivors' engagement programmes remain voluntary, as there is little funding to support the initiatives of survivors' groups. But the seeds are there. What's needed now is global programming and financial support for survivor engagement programmes that tackle the twin issues of modern slavery and economic empowerment simultaneously.
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