Updated: Jan 26, 2019
Mumbai traffic is legendary. It gives a new meaning to the adage, “The journey itself is the destination”. You could be stuck for hours between traffic signals. The city dwellers use this time to catch up on their emails and make phone calls to friends. As a visitor, I enjoy soaking in the sights and sounds of the different areas I drive by. Mumbai is a study in contradictions—huge skyscrapers jostle for space alongside crumbling shanties and plush neighborhoods morph seamlessly into crowded tenements. The roads are packed with luxury cars but look through the tinted windows and you’ll glimpse the underbelly of the city. Each traffic signal has its own ecosystem of children selling newspapers and toys, and handicapped beggars trading blessings of prosperity for some money to feed themselves. As the sun sets, you might find young girls standing in dark corners of seedy neighborhoods, conspicuous by their garish outfits and vacuous eyes. These are the dehumanised victims of human trafficking.
India is one of the fastest growing economies, with a burgeoning middle class. It’s also a global hub of modern-day slavery. The country is a source, destination, and transit point for people who are trafficked for forced labor, illegal organ harvesting, and sexual exploitation. The victims belong to the most disenfranchised sections of society—tribals, lower caste communities, migrants, minorities, and the poor. Entire families could be working as bonded laborers for generations to pay off a debt. Children as young as eight years old are made to work in factories, on construction sites, and as domestic help. Some are even maimed and made to beg or peddle drugs. Unregulated employment agents lure them into metros with false promises of well-paying jobs, only to push them into a life of servitude.
Hidden behind India’s story of growth are statistics that are a cause for concern. There are around three million prostitutes in the country, out of which 40% are children, according to the Guardian. The city of Mumbai alone generates 400 million USD annually from the commercial sexual exploitation of women. Girls from Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe are also caught in this vicious web. Lured away from their poor families with promises of finding a good job or a good match, many of them are trafficked to India and the Middle East as domestic or sex workers. Their passports are taken away from them and going back home is impossible. India has also emerged as a favored travel destination for foreigners who indulge in child pornography and paedophilia, giving a boost to traffickers, especially in tourist-friendly destinations like Goa. Even though the government has strong anti-trafficking laws in place, their implementation leaves much to be desired.
In 2018, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) conducted an audit of 110 shelter homes across 35 districts in the Indian state of Bihar. The report details widespread physical and sexual harassment, corporal punishment, neglect, and humiliation by both privately run and government funded homes. In a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, all the girls had been sexually abused by the male staff and even trafficked to influential people, including local politicians and policemen. Underage girls were found to be pregnant and some even had their babies living with them. Many young boys had also been violated.
A counterbalance to these grim stories are NGOs that are doing commendable work for the prevention, upliftment, and rehabilitation of human trafficking survivors. International Justice Mission (IJM) is an organization that is at the forefront of the fight, and they have a strong presence in India with multiple branches. After speaking to Ms. Joanita Britto, an advocate working with IJM Mumbai, I learned about the organization’s successful five-pronged approach:
Social workers rescue victims through close collaboration with local police officers and the Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU). Since the year 2000, they have successfully rescued over 940 victims of commercial sex trafficking.
Counselors form a rehabilitation and social reintegration plan for each victim and continue to work with them for four years. They partner with several aftercare homes in India to ensure that survivors have a safe place to live, and provide ongoing trauma therapy and vocational and educational support. Their advocates provide legal representation to victims and facilitate the convictions of traffickers by working with the police and public prosecutors.
Across India, since 2012, IJM has trained more than 64,000 police officers, judges, government officials, and other people in the anti-trafficking space. IJM has also been appointed to assess government programs related to commercial sexual exploitation.
IJM assists and trains community members to be vigilant in identifying instances of trafficking. Community members are also encouraged to participate in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. IJM partners with grass-root NGOs and community based organisations to empower vulnerable community members through awareness programmes on trafficking and the legal recourse that is available to them.
A particular case that stood out was that of a minor girl who was trafficked from Bangladesh to Mumbai’s red light district. The team at IJM Mumbai not only helped the government rescue her and reunite her with her family, but they continued to fight for justice on her behalf. After persevering for three years, they helped convict the girl's two traffickers to a rigorous imprisonment and a hefty fine, a major portion of which was sent for her rehabilitation. In Ms. Britto’s own words, "The police additionally requested the assistance of Rights Jessore, an anti-trafficking organisation in Bangladesh to make arrangements for the victim to testify. On June 6, 2015, the minor victim deposed before the court through video conference. She identified and implicated the accused in the case as her traffickers. This testimony along with the witness testimonies were relied on as evidence against the accused. It was a good example of how the Public Justice System can work together with NGOs to bring justice to victims of sex trafficking”.
While I’ve focused on trafficking in India, it remains a global endemic that needs to be tackled aggressively. We need strict laws and even stricter implementation. We need better coordination between law enforcement agencies across different states and different countries. Cases related to trafficking and abuse should be tried in fast-track courts. On a more fundamental level, we need to use education and public service campaigns as tools to sensitize people to issues related to human rights, gender, and children. The objectification of women in mainstream media needs to stop, and there should be tighter controls in the area of cyber security. While most of us cannot be on the field rescuing and rehabilitating victims, we can definitely contribute in a small way to organisations working for this cause. It’s time we put an end to modern day slavery.
Article by Nidhi Bhatt
Nidhi Bhatt is currently a senior at Millburn High School. She is an avid reader, enjoys writing, swimming and playing the piano. Fluent in French, Hindi and Gujarati, she loves exploring history, food, and culture through travel, books, and chance encounters with people. Nidhi is actively involved in community outreach and hopes to study Political Science, French, and Statistics in college.