Telangana brothel case: Can shelter homes protect, rehabilitate rescued minors?

There are legitimate concerns around the preparedness of shelter homes and the quality of care and protection children will receive there.
Telangana brothel case: Can shelter homes protect, rehabilitate rescued minors?
Telangana brothel case: Can shelter homes protect, rehabilitate rescued minors?
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The rescue of 16 minors from Yadagirigutta in Telangana has reminded us again of how sex trafficking and child prostitution is rampant, not only in big cities and red light districts but also in smaller towns and in traditional ‘hotspots’.

Ganesh Nagar Colony in Yadagirigutta is not a typical red light district like Sonagachi in Kolkata, Budhwar Peth in Pune or GB Road in Delhi, where one can tell from the facade that the premises are used for prostitution. Here, the brothels are nondescript houses that look like private residences and from the outside they are indistinguishable from a regular house.

The narrative that has emerged thus far:

  • Eight women, between ages 20 and 60, have been arrested on charges of trafficking, buying of minors for sexual exploitation.
  • The victims are girls even as young than 7. A welfare officer associated with the raid reported that girls as young as 5 are bought and brought to these brothels and enrolled into anganwadis. Ration cards are made for them before they are 10 to make it look like they are a part of the family. The ‘mothers’ are not their biological or adopted mothers, they are traffickers who pose as mothers.
  • Young girls are suspected to be injected with Oxytocin to propel physical growth and maturity. In a separate raid of a nursing home a little distance from the colony, police seized 40 ampules of Oxytocin, a drug which is used in calves to propel their growth for early breeding.
  • ‘Strangers’ (men) are reported to visit at night, to have sex with these children.
  • Children who refuse are tortured and beaten; a 9-year-old girl who was a victim of such torture called up the Childline (1098) to seek help.

Yadagirigutta, about 60 km from Hyderabad, is known for the famous Lakshmi Narasimha Temple which draws devotees around the year. The offenders who sexually exploit the children are ‘strangers’ who visit the brothels at night. While the police have not commented on how long the brothels had been running, it was reported to be common knowledge amongst other stakeholders.

Earlier this year, a research initiative on the prevalence of child sexual exploitation was conducted in six states including Telangana (others being Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh). At least three respondents from Telangana (Achyuta Rao – social activist and founder of a non-profit, Child Rights Society; David Raj – a consultant with UNICEF, Mohamad Imtiyaz Rahil – a District Child Protection Officer) named Yadagirigutta and Ramayampet (in Medak) as being hubs of child prostitution. They also mentioned that “most of the children are housed in private residences which are difficult to monitor” (Choking Demand, Change Mantras, 2018).

In July this year, in a two-day workshop organised by the Hyderabad police on commercial sexual exploitation of children, it was revealed that there is little intelligence on commercial sexual exploitation in Telangana and that there is no dedicated team or strategy to gather intelligence of organised crime against children, which is chronic and endemic.

Protection and rehabilitation of survivors

The rescued girls have been taken into state custody and sent to a state-run protective home. In the midst of a national crisis wherein questions of safety and protection of children in shelter homes have been raised, there are legitimate concerns around the preparedness of these shelter homes and the quality of care and protection they will receive there.

However, even assuming that these shelter homes are well-monitored and there are no risks of violence and exploitation, the fact remains that these shelters are closed institutions, where the children are kept within the boundaries of the premises and all services provided within the premises. This makes children and adolescents feel incarcerated, wherein they have lost the right to freedom, though with the good intent of their protection.

If their families are identified and found to be ‘fit’ (safe and able to care for the children), the magistrate may allow the children to return to their families, else they would be institutionalised for a period of one to three years, sometimes even longer. When anti-trafficking activists themselves own and run these shelters, they also advocate institutionalisation saying that they can ensure safety and protection.

Long term institutionalisation causes multiple harm to children – psychological and emotional, and impairs their psychosocial development, caused by physical confinement, lack of access to mainstream services including health, education and employable technical training. Research shows that the vocational training given to children at shelter homes does not build employability in the mainstream market and often turns them into NGO dependent livelihood projects where their incomes as well as job mobility is restricted.

The narrative predicts that families sell their children off for exploitation and therefore it may not be in the best interests of children to be sent back home. While this may be true in some cases (and if so, one hopes that the investigations are able to prove the same with evidence, as is already apparent in the Yadagirigutta case), these conclusions have already been speculated by activists running these shelters, while investigations have not even begun on those lines.

What we must also keep in mind is that these closed institutions running as protective homes, when run by private agencies with foreign funding, are also huge financial assets for NGOs, and can become a breeding ground for corruption as seen in the recent case in Muzaffarnagar. Activists claiming to speak for children also have a conflict between their own interests and what may be the best interests of the children.

Curbing demand

All content reported in the case so far has focussed on victims. There has been a passing mention that the sex offenders who solicited and prostituted children were men who are ‘strangers in the night’.

The Commissioner of Police Mahesh Bhagwat has spoken about the nexus of traffickers who poach children from poor families and traffic them into prostitution. But the police have given no indication of investigating and prosecuting the offenders who sexually exploited these children. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO, 2012) indicts anyone sexually exploiting children as one of the primary culprits, but when it comes to child prostitution, the prosecution ends with brothel managers, pimps and traffickers.

The Rachakonda police claim that in other cases they have prosecuted ‘customers’ – and one hopes that the same approach of investigation would also be applied in this case.

The cycle of trafficking is also perpetuated when victims of sex trafficking often turn into madams, brothel managers and traffickers themselves, to survive as they grow older and are no longer in demand for prostitution. The eight women who have been arrested would have their own histories of what led them to sex trade and prostitution of minors.

In several such raids where brothel managers were arrested for prostituting new girls, they retorted ‘Where were you when I too was trafficked and sold here for prostitution, and have had to survive in the market by its own rules? I did not make these rules, I just survived by them’.

If the state is keen to break the cycle of perpetration and victimhood, the Department of Women and Child Development may do well to consider what, apart from safe sex programmes by the Health Department to combat HIV AIDS, is the strategy to end the cycle of sex trafficking.

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