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‘Problematising ‘rescue’ from a feminist perspective means asking two questions: ‘What does the term rescue mean’? And, ‘What is the purpose of rescue and rehabilitation?’ From the anti-trafficking standpoint, rescue means simply saving a person from bondage and rehabilitating them back into society. From the feminist standpoint, it means attending to existing power relations in support of an individual’s safe, wilful social transition. The present article draws on fieldwork that I conducted with ‘rescued women’ in Assam, India to examine the contemporary politics of rescue and rehabilitation, showing the dangers and drawbacks of mainstream anti-trafficking approaches.
One thing that strikes any observer of anti-trafficking rescue in India is the gendered differences that structure it. As one of my respondents explained to me, ‘When boys are rescued, they are sent back home, but when girls are rescued, they are sent to rescue homes’. ‘Why?’, I asked. ‘Because boys face no social stigma, whereas girls are not easily accepted back into society. Moreover, we need to counsel girls and to guide them back on to the right path’.
The deep moral codes shaping anti-trafficking work condition both what anti-traffickers can do with those they rescue and what they think it appropriate to do. At times, this can lead to forced rescue. In my interview with Riya, for example, she said the following about her rescue:
My name was reported by one of the girls who ran away from the brothel and got caught. She reported the name of my district and where I come from. I tried to conceal these facts from the police, because I knew that the moment they had it they would send me back. Unfortunately, they caught me and I could not run away, so they did eventually send me back.
The complexities of consent and coercion
Initially, Riya had been tricked into migrating to the city from which she was ‘rescued’ and on arrival was forced to work in the brothel. She thus began her ‘career’ as someone who would legally qualify as a ‘victim of trafficking’. Yet later she consented to work. In her own words, ‘I agreed to the work, since I was getting food, clothes and shelter. Didi [the madam] loved me like my mother, so I had no problem working there’. The moral and legal complexity at play in her story is further emphasised in this extract below, from a later interview with her:
One day, a policewoman came and asked for me. When I went to her she enquired where I was from. I said, ‘Even if you want to arrest me I will not go. All my money is in the bank. I will go only when I want to go. What can you give me? At the most you can help me with the bus fare, but can you help me with my expenses? If tomorrow you lose your job, what will you do? It is the same for me.
Ten years later, Riya was ‘rescued’ from her brothel. Was she still a victim of trafficking, or by then had she become a voluntary sex worker? Which course of action would most have served her needs?
Those complexities in the shelter
Shelter homes are supposed to be spaces of rehabilitation for rescued trafficked victims. Their purpose is to restore their rights, providing somewhere healthy and supportive for them, counselling them to overcome their experiences of exploitation, and training them, if they want, to take up alternative livelihood activities.
However, in practice, the shelters that one observes in India are more likely to be spaces of confinement, which are securely locked and monitored. When I asked one shelter worker the reason behind such strict monitoring, I was told, ‘It is to restrict the access of outsiders’. Yet when I asked the same question to one of the shelter’s ‘inmates’, she said to me, ‘They lock us up so that we do not run away from here’. This was a response that I heard from almost all the respondents in my fieldwork. Furthermore, in one instance, when a worker in a shelter home was trying to draft an official letter for a rescued trafficked victim and was wondering about what language to use, one of the inmates wryly commented, ‘Write that her period of punishment is over’.
The word punishment is powerful here and reflects the experience that many shelter-dwellers have of life in confinement. As others have commented, sensitivity, empathy and emotional support are often in scant supply, which many of my respondents confirmed. As one example of many, a former bar dancer told me the following:
Once, when we were watching the television and I saw a scene of bar dancing in the movie, I said to our caretakers, ‘I use to dance like this’. At this point one of them hushed me away and said, ‘You must not talk about this kind of work here!’
There was no space for processing, no acceptance of what had been.
Mainstream anti-trafficking discourse overlooks the varied dimensions of the politics and practice of rescue and rehabilitation. It is premised on the assumption that rescue is the ultimate means to restore the rights of trafficked girls and women. It negates many women’s free will and simplifies experiences of consent and coercion. In practice, rescue often amounts to a kind of secondary trafficking of girls and women by state agents. The state too displaces women against their will and dumps them in houses which are under constant surveillance. Is this protection and support? I contend that it is not, and is far from the feminist ethic of care.