“There is no difference between living in a brothel and staying in a shelter home,” says 23-year-old Farzana, who, after escaping a brothel in Pune, found herself in a ‘shelter home’ run by an NGO for the next 2 years. “In a brothel, we have no control of the situation, we cannot predict what is to happen to us the next moment; the same goes for these shelter homes, which are worse than prisons for us,” she adds, “In prisons, we know when we will be able to get out; in a shelter home, we have no information or certainty. When asked, I am always told things are in process, and it is a court order to keep me at the shelter, and without being ‘released’ by the court, they cannot send me back home.”
It is disturbing to see that brothels, shelter homes, prisons are synonymous in the minds of a survivor. The recent report about forced detention of women in a reputed shelter home in Hyderabad, and other recent reports of shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh sexually exploiting children, raise serious doubts about the effectiveness of shelter home based rehabilitation approach for survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
While the comparison of a brothel and a shelter home may surprise many, beneath the surface, examination of the two shows stark similarities. At a seminar at Antara, a mental health institution in Bengal, while lecturing on psycho-social impact of sex trafficking on victims, an “activist” from one of the prominent anti trafficking NGO in Kolkata that runs one of the largest shelters for trafficked girls and women in the city declared, “If human trafficking is eradicated, then we would have no job left do to.”
Notwithstanding the ‘joke’ in poor taste, her observation brings to light a few striking similarities between brothels and shelter homes. Both have an economic interest that is based on survivors of trafficking, wherein there is income, and salaries are generated. The brothel or shelter itself is an asset for its owner. The existence and business of both depend on the retention and availability of victims of trafficking. Both are closed institutions where survivors are kept in control, their mobility restricted and communication with family is prohibited or controlled.
Despite the fundamental difference between the two in its intent – one uses debt bondage and servitude of girls and women to earn profit for a few, and the other aims to free people from that bondage – to a young women who has survived both, the similarities are glaring.
Legal sanction for forced institutionalisation and confinement
The State, Law and NGOs in India, despite their best intent, end up treating survivors of sex trafficking as objects of receiving welfare, and not as citizens with rights.
India has 150 such shelters for survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Forced or compulsory institutionalisation of survivors is a nationwide issue. The girls and women who are ‘rescued’ by the police from brothels are institutionalised under The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), which provides power to the State agencies to institutionalise victims of commercial sexual exploitation for a period from one up to three years.
Even though the law does not specifically mandate these institutions to be closed, in practice these shelters are closed to prevent ‘escape’ of its inmates, as the State’s prosecution needs them as witnesses in its case against the accused brothel managers/owners, pimps and traffickers.
Shelter Homes are necessary for trafficked women or girls who are rescued until they can either return back home or find rehabilitation services. However, when these shelters are managed like prisons – robbing the survivors of all agency and independence; having them confined for indefinite periods; not checking consent; the unintended consequence is that they (survivors) will experience it as nothing less than prisons.
The saviour and protector against the perpetrator
NGOs and activists running the shelters for trafficked women justify the closed door policy with the following arguments:
While all of the above justifications are valid, it does not justify the compound violence of incarceration of survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation. The counter arguments are as follows:
A way out?
Without legal reform, and specifically repealing of ITPA and bringing in the Trafficking of Persons Bill 2018 in its place, the practice of incarceration of survivors of sex trafficking in shelter homes is unlikely to go away. Under Section 24 (1), the Bill recognises the right of the ‘rescued person’ to, when produced to the court, reject institutionalisation and rehabilitation. The Bill also talks about punishment for dereliction of duty by the in charge of the Protection Homes or Rehabilitation Homes (Section 23 (2)). The period of stay in the shelters is restricted to a short term stay and the bill recognizes the right of adults to autonomy.
The above news reports are an indicator of a dysfunctional ecosystem where the different stakeholders – NGOs, State and the Law are partly responsible. Greater accountability of the NGOs that run shelters needs to be enforced immediately. The anti-trafficking sector needs stable and larger financial investment and the Government of India should specifically recommend CSR funding for community based rehabilitation programmes as well as strongly monitored shelter homes.
Rumpa Gupta is a development professional, who has been working on the issue of child protection, juvenile delinquency and youth empowerment in India and internationally. She is currently mentoring and facilitating a Survivors Leader group called Utthan in West Bengal.
Views expressed are the writer's own.