Collective power: How trafficking survivors come together to hold the govt accountable

When communities themselves engage in building social accountability and demand their rights, policymakers and governments are compelled to listen. This has been observed for trafficking survivors as well.
Collective power: How trafficking survivors come together to hold the govt accountable
Collective power: How trafficking survivors come together to hold the govt accountable

Human trafficking is a grave human rights violation and involves the sale of human beings for labour, sexual slavery, domestic servitude, forced marriage or sale of organs. The US Department of States’ ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report 2022 highlighted how India does not meet the minimum standard required for tackling and elimination of trafficking, having over 6674 identified victims, and 694 potential ones. This is still a conservative estimate, as around 22 Indian states have not registered a single case of bonded labour victims. According to the Global Slavery Index 2023, out of every 1000 people in India, eight live in conditions of modern slavery. Apart from that, none of the State policies have any component around the rehabilitation of survivors and the role of existing government systems in rehabilitating survivors, except the victim compensation schemes of the states.

State systems have had different levels of engagement and responsiveness to the demands of Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) and activists speaking for trafficking survivors. Some have been patronising, some have been apologetic, and some have been downright ignorant of the demands. If governments and policymakers do not listen to NGOs or activists, how can they be made accountable to their duties? Or more importantly, who can seek accountability from them?

Evidence from around the world shows that when communities themselves engage in building social accountability and demand their rights, policymakers and governments are compelled to listen. This has been observed for trafficking survivors as well. Taking the example of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, activists from NGOs have been liasoning with officials and politicians for decades, leading to negligible change in the system. Curiously, when survivors in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh themselves went to the government officials and demanded their rights, the responsiveness was higher. The impact was felt at a deeper level when groups of survivors would go to a certain duty bearer and ask for what they wanted from them.

“We saw that the Block Development Officer (BDO) was more receptive to hearing survivors. Other times when I went, sometimes they gave me time, sometimes they did not. But when survivors went, I saw that the BDO connected her to other departments, in some cases spoke to the other officials for her, and services started to be received by our survivors,” says a social worker from North 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

The message was clear — the efforts of survivors, and especially survivors' collectives, were crucial to foment the accountability of the government towards the rights claimants. Over the years, different groups of survivors used different strategies and tactics to hold the duty bearers accountable, from the local level bodies to the state government. 

One of the common strategies used by survivors' collectives associated with the Leadership Next (a programme that focuses on overall leadership growth of trafficking survivors and other stakeholders, including social workers and activists) was to familiarise themselves with a particular government official by visiting them multiple times.

Person A, a survivor from North 24 Parganas says, “The officer came everyday and saw me sitting there, for my widow pension. Whenever he came, I was there. Eventually he got to know about my needs and he facilitated that. I think he admired my tenacity in not leaving without getting my demands met.” 

Another advantage that the survivors group had over the NGO workers was that they could often assert their demands fearlessly on the basis of their legitimate need for that service. Person S, a social worker says, “The survivors did not fear what the official thought of them, or what they would say. One survivor openly told an official while he was eating lunch that when the common people were suffering so much, how could a people’s servant eat without worry?”  

Many times, survivors also use prior connections, or the connections of the NGO workers to convince or persuade officials to give them their entitlements. Persuasion, cajoling, consistent follow ups, and pleading are few of the softer, covert ways of getting their demands met. 

Person R, a member of a sex workers’ collective from Andhra Pradesh, had her own way of eliciting responses from the government, a method often used by oppressed communities to navigate a deeply unequal world — feigning submission. For R, a woman belonging to a marginalised identity, the world and its ways have always been unfair and often individuals like her leverage their victim stories to evoke the system and influence the decision. R has been seen to have gotten favourable results, especially from the judiciary, on the basis of her powerful retelling of her story as a victim of a grievous crime, often moving the judge to tears. 

In some cases, it was the individual tenacity of survivors that helped them gain access to crucial services, while in some other cases it was their connections with NGO activists that impressed certain duty bearers. 

However, the most popular of the strategies leading to tangible results was the show of collective strength and collective solidarity amongst survivors. In Andhra Pradesh, a collective of sex workers and survivors of trafficking named Vimukthi, with the support of their mentoring NGO named HELP, consistently used the strategies of redefining themselves as a ‘state-wide collective’ and followed up with specific line managers in government departments, coupled with media advocacy, to bring about tangible services and government schemes being made accessible to sex workers. 

For SAANS, a collective of labour trafficking survivors belonging largely to the Dalit community, it was the extension of their identity to a ‘community-based social worker’ who supports the community to gain entitlements, which helped them gain important connections with the government. In a collective in West Bengal, the development and growth of peer solidarity between survivors have been sources of hope and strength to be able to continue the arduous journey. 

However, the pathway to making the State accountable to the needs of  survivors has been full of barriers, with many duty bearers being ignorant or perpetuating stigma about survivors. In many circumstances, the experience of survivors has been hopeless and humiliating. 

“It has been very hard to deal with certain duty bearers, like the police with whom we share a complicated and difficult relationship. Moreover, what happens when we spend hours and hours building rapport with a particular official, only to find out the next day that he has been transferred. All our efforts go to waste.” says P, a survivor from South 24 Parganas.

In the face of frequent rejections from people in the government, red tapism, and the tardiness with which the government machinery moves, what helps survivors to keep their hope alive and most importantly, how do collectives of survivors re-strategize to keep up their struggle of making the State own up to its responsibility? 

A dive into the experience of activists working closely with survivors throws light on the various ways in which the survivors’ collectives continue their fight. 

Person S, an activist from Kolkata working closely with a survivor collective called Utthan, shares, “I have observed that survivors often closely associate themselves with the identity of the warrior. They say that we are warriors and we will keep fighting and this gives them hope. The NGO has been working with survivors on leadership and building resilience. I have seen that survivors who have been working for their rights for a long period of time and who have undergone leadership training, develop an acute skill of strategizing, analysing the impact, and re-strategizing. They have that curiosity and that hope to keep trying through different means”

Whatever be the strategy, survivors continue to keep asserting and visualising their demands to the State; and NGOs must keep the survivors at the forefront and support them in paving their roadmap, if the journey towards building a collective effort against human trafficking is to be sustained.

Anwesha Chatterjee is a development sector professional and gender based violence researcher.

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