Monday, July 30, 2018

10 REASONS WHY THE ANTI TRAFFICKING BILL SHOULD BE PASSED





Today 30th July is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. As practically the entire world grapples with the problem of human trafficking either as a source, destination or a transit; India takes another bold step to fight this organized crime from all ends making it one of the most holistic and comprehensive legal document. While the Loksabha passed the bill on 26th July,2018; the Bill still has to be passed in Rajyasabha.
As I sit here and write this article, I get a call from a senior police officer that little children as young as 7-8yrs old were just now rescued from a brothel around 45kms from my office. My fingers stumble and I am numbed for a moment. My whatsapp buzzes, the pictures of the rescue has arrived ...I am shocked see the faces of five little children huddled in a corner of a brothel. For a minute I give up on writing this piece, too shocked. I somehow dispatch my team to assist the police. I want to close my eyes as my head feels heavy and I sense the beginning of anger inside me…the picture haunts me. I know I need to calm down and write why there is such an urgency for a comprehensive legislation. For many who are opposing this Bill on presumptions and assumptions fearing for their livelihood, I want to just tell them lives of millions of children is at stake. While they worry about an imaginary crises, we are living with day today human tragedy of hundreds of lives lost in sex slavery.

It is in this context that I want put forth before you 10 reasons why I think the ‘Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill should be passed.

1. It is comprehensive as it addresses gaps that so far remained unaddressed. It focuses on the prevention of trafficking, time bound trial, repatriation, relief, rehabilitation, protection of victims, witnesses, complainants and more. Not only is it about criminalizing and widening ambit of penal law, but also contains provisions for prevention, prosecution, protection and rehabilitation of victims.

2. All those components that is not covered in Sec 370, IPC such as buying and selling human beings, bearing child, begging, forced marriage, trafficking by administering chemical substance or hormones to make the victim attain early sexual maturity, trafficking by encouraging or abetting any person to migrate illegally into India or Indians to some other country, etc. is covered.

3. An institutional framework is legally mandated in the form of “National Anti Trafficking Bureau” which will be located in National Investigating Agency and will be responsible for all inter-state and cross-border cases of trafficking. This is perhaps the first step of its kind to fight the organized crime of human trafficking in an organized manner.

4. A dedicated Rehabilitation Fund is set up which will ensure legal assistance and support, counselors, translators, social workers, mental health professionals are available to the victims for care and protection at the cost of the state.. The rehabilitation measures are not merely restricted to placing victims in Rehabilitation Homes, but extend to providing physical, psychological and social support, including access to education, skill development, physical and mental healthcare, legal aid etc. The rehabilitation of the victim is not contingent on the conviction of the offender.

5. For the first time victim protection and witness protection is part of a legal document. (Sec. 52)

6. All the stakeholders and duty bearers (law enforcers, service providers etc.) are made accountable, so that no victim is subjected to secondary victimization.

7. The criminal syndicate and the proceeds from the crime will be systematically targeted and there will be definite dent in the organized criminal gangs.

8. The structural framework to both tackle the crime or to provide protection to the victims is from national to the local level.

9. ‘Exploitation’ is the core component to identify the crime. Anyone rescued in a place of exploitation who is able to convince the judicial officer that he/she was not exploited and is not speaking under duress will be released immediately.

10. The victims (adult or children) are entitled to interim relief within 60 days of charge sheet being filed; this is for the first time such a legal mandate is provided for the welfare of the victim. Till date as a State Scheme only two states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have given interim relief to victims of trafficking.

Trafficking of persons is not an intellectual debate or a political agenda; it is the lives of millions whose bodies, mind and spirit are destroyed in this trade of human misery. They cannot form unions or become a powerful lobby as their voices are submerged and crushed under the weight of social stigma and ostracization. So those of us who have taken the responsibility of fighting this war on behalf of these victims and survivors it is our duty to ensure that these voices are heard loud and clear. I urge all concerned citizens to understand the need for such a legislation and use their good offices to influence our temple of democracy ‘the parliament’ to pass this Bill. Not that all problems will be solved overnight with this legislation, but at least it will be one step towards it.



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

WHY WE NEED THE ANTI-TRAFFICKING BILL,2018?


When I first met nineteen year old Bhavani in 2002, I was taken aback by her vehemence and aggression. Bhavani was rescued from G.B Road Red Light Area in New Delhi an infamous prostitution zone close to Kamala Market Police Station filled with many ‘Kothas’ (brothels) with girls from all over India and a significant number from Andhra Pradesh. My dear friend Roma Debabrata who heads STOP had assisted the police in that rescue where hundreds of telugu girls were rescued.  What struck me about this girl is her aggressive stand that she was ‘doing this by her willing choice’ and why were we harassing her?

When she was brought to my shelter home in Hyderabad, she tried to escape twice. It took her more than 6 weeks to settle down. And when I finally spoke to her the first few question she asked “how can I trust you? The same police who were taking ‘haftas’(bribe) every week from each brothel are now removing us from that place?  And you people were with the police, so how much do you get?” I was stumped by her questions. 

Over a period, after many counseling sessions she confided that she was 12 years old when she was brought to Delhi from Ananthpur in Andhra Pradesh by a friendly neighbor who had promised a good job as domestic help in an affluent family. The lady left her in a brothel and disappeared. In an unknown city and an alien language, Bhavani could not understand when the Malkin (brothel keeper) told her to change her clothes and be ready for a customer. As soon as Bhavani realized what was happening to her, she tried to escape. The henchmen in the brothel traced her and brought her back to the same place. Physical torture, threats and intimidation followed. When Bhavani felt she had no choice, she gave up resisting. In the seven years that she lived in that brothel she had to cater to 20-30 men a day, was given injections to enhance her body, became a substance abuser to handle the men, met hundreds of police men who took their ‘weekly cuts’ to provide protection to the brothel and had four abortions. As Bhavani’s story unfolded before my eyes in the next few weeks for the first time I was able to see how much we have failed not just Bhavani but also hundreds of girls like her who have been sold in sex slavery and have over the period of time normalized the experience of being exploited.

Who will take accountability for these irreversible damages? This is the question that plagued my mind over the next few months as I met hundreds of such victims in my shelter home. One thing that was clear in my mind was that no stakeholder looked at either the law or post rescue services from the perspective of the victim.
For them she was a burden to get rid of at the earliest. There was not even an iota of empathy to reflect on ‘what is making this person behave in this particular manner’. 

At my own level I started advocating for a comprehensive policy in the State of Andhra Pradesh. In 2003 after much lobbying the first ever Anti Trafficking Policy, GO MS 1 issued on 3rd January 2003 came into effect.
My close interactions with hundreds of girls removed from commercial sexual exploitation opened my eyes to a world of slavery and also an organized crime. While society at large looked at it as a moral crime and formed prejudiced opinion about the victim, I was able to see a different side of the coin. Every time there was a rescue and girls were admitted in my shelter, a very powerful counter force would be in the court trying to get the release of the victim. In Delhi we faced even high profile lawyers rushing to the High Court stalling the transfer of the Telugu victims to their home state. Back home, this resistance was felt at multiple levels including physical attacks on our shelter, assaults on our staff, personal attacks on my life and also as threats, intimidation and ultimatum of eviction.  

This set me thinking, how come these girls who come from such poverty ridden families have access to such powerful groups who will go to any extent to get the girls out of the ‘shelter home’. In a country where there is no value for life, girl children are considered a burden and worthy of only feticide or infanticide, a rape victim is victimized for being a victim and socially excluded, how come in the same country these girls who have been sold into prostitution and have been raped by thousands of men have such a ‘high value’ that people are willing to stake their money and their lives to take them out of our ‘shelters’? Claimants with best lawyers would go even to the High Court or Supreme Court to take custody of a victim sheltered in a ‘safe home’. Organizations like mine were vilified and were recipients of constant abuse, threat and attacks.

The pattern of the criminal syndicate was slowly becoming more and more clearer to me as the days passed. While the trafficking syndicate wanted the girls back in the brothels to ensure their steady flow of exponential revenue, there were also others who wanted them back for their own reasons; I think it is best left to them to explain their motives. I also came to understand the vicious cycle of the crime wherein a victim over a period of time not only normalized the experience of being exploited but also slowly became a perpetrator of the crime. The inter-dependence of a young victim and an aged woman in prostitution is a frightening reality of perpetuation of the crime. 

In 2004, I finally decided to file a Public Interest Litigation 56/2004 in the Supreme Court of India demanding Victim Protection Protocols for victims of sex trafficking ensuring that victims are treated with dignity & respect not only during rescue operations but also in each of the post-rescue process putting an end to any form of secondary victimization and also ensuring rehabilitation as a right of a victim. For 11years the case was argued in the Supreme Court. Although I started with Human Rights Law Network, when Aparna Bhat moved out of that firm I requested her to argue for me. For a very small retainer fee, Aparna argued the case for us for 10years. Towards 2014, I requested Shri Dushyant Dave a prolific advocate to represent us as senior counsel. Shri Dave argued the case probono. In 2015 the court passed its final direction. The court directed the Central Government to bring a comprehensive legislation on Trafficking of Persons (not just sex trafficking but all forms of trafficking)      

For the last three years the Ministry of Women & Child Welfare has held hundreds of consultations and inter-ministerial dialogue to draft the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill. All my recommendations in the Supreme Court now takes the form of a legislation, of course the canvas is larger and encompasses all forms of trafficking.  For the first time in the country trafficking is now being recognized as an organized crime and a frame-work is envisaged in the form of National Anti Trafficking Bureau which will address the local, national and international implications of all forms of trafficking. It is also the first time that this framework will address both inter-state and cross-border trafficking. As I mentioned earlier I started with a narrow framework of sex trafficking but the Bill addresses practically all forms of trafficking such as labor exploitation, surrogacy, commercial sexual exploitation, forced marriage and beggary.

While at one end the criminal syndicate is addressed, the Bill also recognizes the damages a person is subjected to in the process of being trafficked and  thereafter living in the world of exploitation and provides for short-term and long term rehabilitation, victim witness protection and accountability of all the stakeholder if they violate the norms. There is a genuine threat perception for every victim who is removed from an exploitative situation that he/she will be harmed by the criminal syndicate. The fear is real, as the criminal syndicate is also concerned on what the victim will disclose to the law enforcers. While community based rehabilitation and social reintegration is the larger goal of every anti-human trafficking intervention, there is no substitute for transit protection homes/rehabilitation homes for creating a temporary safe environment for the victim to heal and gain the necessary life-skills to cope up with the larger society. This need of the victim is duly recognized by this Bill.    

The Bill also legally mandates that budgets are provided for all activities aiming at prosecution of offenders and protection of victims ensuring it is not a mere rhetoric but an implementable goal. Among many other components two important aspects that the Bill covers is prevention of trafficking and self-evaluation by way of Annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

Maybe this is not a super perfect legislation, but it is a start. It takes the next step in crystalizing Sec 370 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and ensures a legal statute in providing an organized framework to fight the most heinous organized crime “trafficking of persons”.
Does anybody in the world need to be worried about this Bill? I think so. For all those who directly or indirectly abet or live on this crime will be impacted drastically if this legislation is implemented in word and spirit.

After removing over 20,000 women and children from sex slavery and experimenting on various interventions to counter this organized crime, failing in many but also successful in some, I know for sure that nobody can say today ‘lets legitimize this crime as nothing can be done about it, so let us brand this as necessary evil’. We have been able to demonstrate that it is possible to change and this bill/ legislation is one more step towards it.  I say this with pride as over 146 survivor leaders are part of my full-team in this movement against human trafficking.   

When I shared the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill,2018 with my survivor leaders, most of them had tears in their eyes. They had just come back after cremating the body of  23 year old Gayatri who was trafficked to Delhi at the age of 14years, rescued at the age of 23 with her 3year old daughter when she had full blown AIDS by a dear friend and collaborator Lalita Nayak from SPID. She was in our shelter only for 10 days before AIDS took her away on 9th July 2018.

In the words of Jyoti a dynamic survivor leader “How many more lives have to be lost before the world will wake up to our reality?”  

As a tribute to Gayatri and hundreds like her who have lost their lives in this world of slavery....for those who are still enslaved...I hope India wakes up to the reality of human trafficking...and when this Bill is tabled in the Monsoon Session the parliamentarians are endowed with the right wisdom to value the lives and dignity of women and children...no human being deserves to be trafficked...even one is ONE TOO MANY     

         
 

 




Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The shrinking humanity!

After 25 years of work, I was under the arrogant presumption that I knew about sex crimes and sex trafficking.
My balloon burst a few weeks back, when the local police requested my support for recording the statement of a victim.
Nothing prepared me for the fact that victim before me was a 2 year old infant brutally raped by a neighbor. My hands were cold...my legs were shivering and my tongue was heavy....I could not get a word out. I recused myself and referred the case to a psychologist who did the needful. For the first time in my professional life my skills failed me.
While one copes with disbelief the ever growing numbers of women & children subjected to sexual assault, on the other hand I am disgusted with the extraordinary solidarity a convicted rapist gets in this country.
Two states in the country came to a standstill the day rapist Ram Rahim was convicted, 40 lives were lost,arson,roiting all for a rapist! This man had the patronage of the most powerful in the country.
I can understand nobody can predict anybody's character in advance. But atleast when a court direction is given, did these powerful people condemn the act...NO....did these people mention anywhere that they made mistake in supporting this man...NO....
Silence...eerie silence. I think this kind of silence in such moments is the critical factor that facilitates an enabling environment for impunity. We all do it in multiple ways.
Every time we find fault with a victim for her being raped and chose to exclude her, ostracize her, assassinate her character, her dressing, her behavior....we support a rapist.
Every time we choose not to report, as our family honor and prestige is far greater than the criminal violation of our daughter's body...we support a rapist
Every time we ignore the  news reports of sex crime...and continue with our busy lives for we believe this can never happen to our children...we support a rapist
A few days back I was speaking at a conference and I was taken aback with the stunned silence (the sound of the applause was so feeble) I received from the audience after my speech. I wondered whether I lost my touch! The tea-break was shocking. Nearly 26 adult women in the audience of 2000 slowly came up to me at different points, and shared that they were raped as a child...and this is the first time that they were sharing to any human being. Some of them were past 40 years and were abused when they were 6-7yrs old.  Decades of silence....decades of freedom & liberty for the perpetrator!
When are soul is silent...can we expect any change anywhere? If we have to break the silence, it has to start in each one of us...breaking the silence of our soul.
By 'liking' 'commenting' 'posting' or 're-sharing' we do not bring social change...maybe we just support a cause and express our solidarity. Real change happens...when 'we' change....our outlook changes.
The day we decide from the core of our being...any sexual violence on us or anybody else is absolutely 'intolerable' that is the day change will start...and maybe a day will come when the world will be safe for all of us!
(serious warning to those posting advertisements of escort services & porn sites on my blog, I have been silent and tolerant till now...don't expect me to be that always...you must know there are ways to report) 


    
    

Sunday, May 21, 2017

LIFE SO FAR...


It is the first time in my adult life that I have had 12 days of reflection before my birthday!
On 7th May,2017 I had a near collapse at Kolkatta Airport while on my way to Bhubneshwar to address a gathering which my good friend Sujit Mahapatra(Bakul Foundation) had organized. After some dramatic moments including an ambulance at Hyderabad Airport to take me to Apollo Hospital, I was operated on 8th May. A nice looking…practically oval shaped 35mm stone was lodged in my gall bladder. The surgeon Dr Sainath did a great job…I have the stone as a memento in my study! After 4 days of hospital stay, I decided I will stay in my ashram, for multiple reasons, one of them being, to be near my work place as much as possible.

The last 12days were days of reflection. Have I been fair to myself and my body? Were the decisions and choices I made in my life the right ones?  Do I need to have a separate lens for times when I might be helpless and need assistance?
Being a fulltime volunteer for the last two decades, was never a regretful choice…it was difficult at times but since my personal needs are so few…it never really acted as a big hurdle. My occasional consultancies, speaking engagements, part of my awards was more than enough to sustain my life. After I got married to Raj in 2006, it was even more easier as he took care of the food & shelter and clothing was always my younger sister’s domain. 

But this time when Raj had to pay my hospital bills…I for the first time realized I do not even have a medical insurance. Something that I have ensured for all my girls, I personally do not have it. My physician Dr Rajib Paul tells me that this stone has grown this size in the last 3years…I did not even have a whiff of it…occasional abdominal pains were always about indigestion and gas which was best sorted with a home remedy of eating raw ginger with lemon…
Why is it that I became deaf to the call of my own body…while  I am so tuned to the call of pain anywhere else outside.  I am blessed that my wonderful partner, my team and all my girls looked after me so well in the last few days…but is there something that I need to learn for myself  now?
I am 45 today…I am not growing young…each moment, each day, each year adds urgency to my mission…long way to go before I accomplish what I was sent to do in this world.  I cannot afford to collapse physically before my tasks are completed….I need to find a way to nurture and care for this vehicle…which will take me closer to my destination.
My lens as I view myself today is  slowly modifying…I want to service and maintain this vehicle on a moment to moment basis so that it is in super condition as we travel this long journey….I also want to nurture and cherish each one in my journey so that some day, someone among them will continue this mission, when I will no longer be able to travel…

Life so far….has been beautiful and blessed….each moment nourishing me…creating opportunities for learning & growing…and most importantly giving me the vision to see and experience ‘God’ at every step.   Each one of you out there is part of my God experience.
As I celebrate my life today…I thank each one of you for being part of my journey in some way or other…




    

Friday, December 30, 2016

THE YEAR IT WAS!







A year has gone by. When I look back this perhaps was the most turbulent and the most jubilant year. I remember last year on the same day I hurt my leg, dragged myself with a hairline fracture to have a darshan of Lord Balaji at Tirupati...limped my way to start a first of its kind community awakening caravan to combat trafficking Swaraksha!
The shock of getting a Padmashree lingered for a long time, I still wonder after a year who actually nominated me.Being recognized by our own government is a massive leap for my mission, after years finally a cause like ours is acknowledged! Significantly this year also saw government recognition from several countries such Germany and France.
But the year was also about struggling to construct our new campus, the mounting debts, an attack on our new shelter home, challenges with FCRA,some weird and painful rescues and of course the most depleting one personal slander. I do not think I have overcome all of it, but I know from the deepest of my being "this too shall pass".
I will forever cherish 2016, for bringing me closer to my soul family...a large community of wonderful human beings who believe in my mission as much as I do...
Now as I get ready to usher in 2017, I more stronge...more wise...more bright...more empathetic...more humble....and most importantly more grateful for life...I surrender myself completely to that creator who chose me for this mission...every moment is a blessing!
Wishing you a another year of great moments...of new learnings, hope, triumphs & failures!!!!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

DEMONTIZATION-FROM MY LENS




On Nov 8th 2016, when the Hon’ble Prime Minister announced demonetizing of Rs500/ & Rs 1000/, it did not ring any alarm bells in my ear. My only concern was the Rs 7000/ in 500/’s which I had to deposit. After a while, when it started finally sinking what this is all about, I was super thrilled-finally black money in various forms will be targeted. I remembered the trauma and struggle I had to go through while purchasing land for Prajwala when we could not  even find one seller ready to do a complete white transaction. Infact we lost over two months just in search of a land owner who is willing to sell his land on a white transaction. It was a vindication of a sort thinking about the thousands of real estate agents who were in deep lurch that day.
In the days to come, my thrill and happiness grew by leaps and bounds when I noticed a drastic fall in the number of women and girls rescued from prostitution being admitted in our shelter. After 15days we were able to see for ourselves that there was a drastic reduction in the number of sex buyers as there was currency crunch and in Hyderabad where prostitution is more decentralized in apartments and hotels suddenly there was a lull. My colleagues in other parts of the country also reported the same.
We felt this acutely in Yadadri a temple town where a small community of women practice prostitution as a way of life. We have a learning center for their children in that area. On one occasion this month when I had to meet the women they sheepishly requested me whether midday meal could be given to the children as they were practically starving. Using that as an opportunity I once again (I had done this many times before too) offered them exit options. And to my utter surprise over 46 of them who had come for the mothers meeting readily agreed that it was time they choose an alternative life option. Definitely the entire sex trafficking industry was shaken by demonetization! To me the best surgical strike ever to counter this crime.
But on an another level I started feeling the pinch. We run three very large shelter homes  for child and adult victims of trafficking. Although as part of transparency & good governance in the last three years we had systematically ensured that all our transactions are cashless including fruit and vegetable vendors are paid online, still cash is required on a regular basis. We have tried to deal with all the small inconveniences but when you have hundreds of lives dependent on you, many of whom being HIV positive it is not that easy to be cashless. Our crises started when banks continued to be filled with long queues(In Hyderabad, I don’t know why most nationalized banks are in a state of perpetual chaos).
We started sending a staff to stand in the queue early in the morning so that atleast by midday small requirements is fulfilled. The second problem came with ATM’s practically over 50% of the ATM in Hyderabad don’t work, and the ones which do, they do not have enough cash to last the day. So when staff whose monthly salaries is their only sustenance could not even pay their rents in December as they could neither go to the banks nor the ATM’s it became not so very pleasant. We declared a working day as a holiday so that the staff could go the bank, but only some of them could finish their work. This situation with the banks and ATM’s continue to pinch us in multiple ways. I guess it becomes slightly upsetting after a month when you cannot even use the cash that legitimately belongs to you. The hours in banks and ATM’s after a while is not that “feel good” as you are able to withdraw only a little although you might have a higher requirement.
I do not think any Indian is against demonetization, provided one does not require to go to the bank every week or hunt for an ATM in several cities!!! I am also fairly positive with interactions with thousands of Indians that everybody is happy to be subjected to inconveniences for a temporary period of time for the larger good.   

But when mind-sets do not change and people find millions ways to cheat it gets on to your nerves. My blood boils when new currency notes are unearthed during IT raids. When the larger public is struggling for Rs 2000/ there are selected few who are siphoning in large scale. I think these characters should be dealt separately and the punitive measure should be on the lines of aggravated crime. At one end you respect Bankers for doing their best in these difficult times, but you also want to get hold of those who are responsible for siphoning.

On my mission ofcourse the most important takeaway-if the demand is hit the entire organized crime will be hit and the supply chain will crumble. I know right now this is temporary and criminals are applying their minds creatively and innovatively how to bridge this phase, but if the Government on a war footing initiate interventions to address demand ie if sex buyers are deterred, I do believe trafficking of millions of women and children for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation will drastically reduce. Maybe it is high time Government looks at a singular option of criminalizing demand. This ofcourse should be simultaneously backed by holistic package comprising of psycho-social support, health care services including de-addiction, employability training, employment options, educational support and therapeutic safe homes for adult and child victims.
Definitely if the all the ministries, corporates and the civil society organizations joined hands, it is possible. But is the Government willing to take this bold move to end sex slavery?