Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Scandals in sex worker rescue shelters: is ‘awful’ distracting from ‘lawful’?

How should we channel concern over the growing number of anti-trafficking scandals?

Kimberly Walters
12 December 2018


Kolkata. Animesh Hazra/Flickr. (cc by-nc)

In Muzaffarpur, India, news erupted last May that the head of a government-backed shelter for victims of trafficking relied on the repeated help of his staff and silence of his neighbours while raping more than 30 inmates. A similar report appeared in October about the transnational NGO, More than Me, for child survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in Monrovia, Liberia. In late November, yet another report broke, this time highlighting beatings and coerced labour within the prominent anti-trafficking NGO Prajwala, in Hyderabad, India. A survivor died by suicide in the same shelter in April. Such awful scandals within the anti-trafficking movement are not new, but 2018 has been particularly plagued by repeat shocks.

Rights activists worry that such scandals may act as little more than lightning rods. When lightning strikes, the rod channels dangerous energy away from the building and safely into the ground where it dissipates. Similarly, when such news reports are dismissed as unfortunate but unusual ‘bad apples’, the attention they command may serve to channel energies away from the reforming the system as a whole – the awful distracting from the lawful.

Imagine being plucked from of your life, locked in a shelter, and waiting in limbo for 60 to 90 days to hear whether the court deems you in need of rehabilitation.

The forced, fully legal confinement of sex workers in India

In India, for example, news reports abound about the number of arrests in Muzaffarpur and the ongoing court proceedings against those allegedly involved. While such attention is warranted, we hear almost nothing about the fact that forced rescue is both legal and pervasive in India under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1986 (ITPA). The ITPA does not distinguish between victims of sex trafficking and adult women who choose to sell sex. By its authority, both groups are merged into one and made the lawful targets of anti-trafficking teams.

More to the point, the ITPA does not require that targets of anti-trafficking efforts consent to be rescued. Whether or not they wish it, once the police identify them, both victims of trafficking and voluntary sex workers have no choice but to be locked up in protection homes while courts sort out their cases. This process ought to last less than a month, but typically takes two to three months at minimum. Imagine being plucked from of your life, locked in a shelter, and waiting in limbo for 60 to 90 days to hear whether the court deems you in need of rehabilitation or whether your family can take you home from the shelter. For some inmates, this process can take three years or more. The Prajwala rescuee that took her own life earlier this year had been incarcerated for more than four months while waiting to be repatriated to Uzbekistan.

Women in India who welcome rescue from trafficking adjust more easily to life within closed protection homes. However, many (and arguably most) women picked up in anti-trafficking raids completely reject forced rescue. Those who are held against their will in ‘protection homes’ – lawfully under the ITPA –resort to escaping, rioting, and self-harm in an attempt to regain or at least assert their own agency. Such women point out that being forcibly detained in Indian protection homes is itself a kind of trafficking when it serves to garner funding from governmental agencies and charitable donors. They claim that such humanitarian trafficking is worse than being held in jail. In jail, they say, they could communicate more readily with their loves ones, and they would be spared requests to manufacture items sold as ‘freedom products’.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the staff members in Indian shelters tasked with overseeing such frightened, angry, and depressed women on a day-to-day basis resort to ignoring them, busying them with manufacturing work, or using shame, verbal and even physical abuse to try to subdue them while they await court release orders. As we know from the Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments, institutional and situational expectations can lead otherwise good people to inflict harm on those under their control. While abusing inmates at trafficking shelters is nowhere lawful, it is rendered almost inevitable in shelters established to implement a law that wantonly disregards the desires and intentions of survivors.

Adult women should decide what’s best for themselves, and the notion that anti-trafficking NGOs must “reverse mindsets” is ethically untenable.

The new Indian trafficking bill: a chance missed?

Such paternalism pervades not just the ITPA, but the attitudes of many of those overseeing anti-trafficking efforts. The notion that anti-traffickers know better than survivors themselves compounds the harms that survivors face in the long aftermath of rescue. The paternalism undergirding these harms is well illustrated by the response on social media of a Prajwala board member to the recent report that the shelter’s inmates were angry with their treatment. She wrote:

Of course there are disgruntled elements in these shelters. Where a woman had money, alcohol, drugs at her disposal, she has now been asked to wear a uniform, is taught a skill and is asked to follow a strict routine, while her salary (in comparison to what she used to get as a sex worker, a mere pittance) is put directly into her bank account. It takes time for a reversal of mindset amongst these women.

That a board member of an anti-trafficking NGO finds no difficulty in forcing her notion of what a woman ought to be doing with her life onto shelter inmates, and that she is comfortable requiring women to earn far less than they once did without regard to economic realities, speaks volumes of a system designed to alienate and antagonise the very people it ostensibly aids. Adult women should decide for themselves what is best for them, and the notion that anti-trafficking NGOs must “reverse mindsets” is ethically untenable.

A new bill in India, the Trafficking of Persons Bill 2018, could take the opportunity to rectify the ITPA’s long-standing problems. Instead, the present version of the new bill not only fails to address the ITPA’s problems, but it seeks to expand the system of forced rescue and rehabilitation to a much larger swath of workers. Amnesty International and the UNHROHC have raised human rights objections to the bill. Yet it has already passed in India’s lower house. If it succeeds in the upper house, it is poised to swell a system replete with lawful, comparatively low grade, but no less pervasive harms to the very populations that anti-trafficking networks seek to protect and empower.

Harming while trying to help: a world-wide problem

India is by no means alone in its systemic yet lawful abuses through anti-trafficking operations. Runa Lazzarino argues that aftercare providers in anti-trafficking programmes as far apart as Nepal, Vietnam, and Brazil employed similar registers of distrust, disdain and disregard toward the survivors they were tasked with helping. Toni Eby notes that those who wished to be rescued in the U.S. were sometimes ignored because they did not match the presumed profiles of victims. Nicolas Lainez shows that many of those targeted by anti-traffickers in the United Kingdom preferred to continue working and experienced rescue as more harmful than continuing to work as they were.

Anti-trafficking scandals are symptomatic of much more pervasive problems in our approach to righting the wrongs of human trafficking and forced labour. Such scandals should be taken as evidence that the solution itself needs to be entirely re-imagined. While some scholars have highlighted the problematic outcomes of a militarised approach to anti-trafficking operations, others have pointed out that carceral solutions to severe exploitation can only ever provide partial answers. Neil Howard argues that till date the anti-trafficking movement has yet to address any of the real roots of severe exploitation. Instead of the forced detainment of victims, we require a broad-based and vigorous transnational labour and migration rights movement if we hope to make real progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

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