Why Shelter Homes Feel Like Prisons For Sex Trafficking Survivors, And How To Change This

“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:

  • Protection of survivors from exploiters: Brothel managers and pimps try to contact the rescued survivor in the shelters, use emotional blackmail, coercion and intimidation to dissuade the victim from disclosing any damning statement to the magistrate or police, and deny any sexual exploitation that the survivor may have been subject to. These traffickers often fly down the biological parents from their villages to the court to take custody of the survivors, for the traffickers to take back control of them. Hence, to protect the survivors from traffickers and brothel managers, they are kept in the shelters with minimal movement outside. The first three months post rescue are particularly critical, report activists.
  • Repatriation and family reunification may not be in their best interests: When the family is too impoverished to provide for the survivor or when the trafficker who recruited, transported and sold her may be a family member/relative/neighbour, who has considerable power and influence over the family, it is not in best interests of a survivor.
  • Specialised services for recovery and rehabilitation: It takes multi-disciplinary expertise to provide services to survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Having suffered sustained physical, sexual and psychological violence, specialised skills are required to enable them to recover from trauma, build their resilience and cope with challenges of poverty, weak family system, social stigma, guilt and shame. A specific kind of institutional space is required to be able to provide these services.
  • Facilitation of rescue: Most importantly, without the shelters, the police cannot rescue any victim of trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation. It is illegal to keep any child or woman in police stations after dark, therefore, unless the police has a reliable shelter in the city, town or district, rescuing children and women from trafficked situations is impossible. 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:
  • Shelters must operate with minimum standards of care, not impinge upon the fundamental rights of the survivors; they must prevent incarceration and indefinite detentions. While it is true that the first three months post rescue are critical, managing this only with closing the gates of the shelter cannot be the only answer. One may well argue that most of these shelters are run on poor budgets. However, evidence suggests that even for the 10 or 12, out of 150 organisations that raise substantive funding from private sector or foreign governments and foundations, the practice remains the same. The reasons for not investing in a care system that does not become custodial is a neglect and blindness to the oppression being inflicted upon the ones that one claims to protect and empower.
  • The period of stay in the institution has to be limited, time bound and focused. Rehabilitation services needs to be focused on deinstitutionalisation and community based care and protection. Rehabilitation programmes focusing on assisting survivors access mainstream health, education and welfare services, while living with their families or independent shelters, is more effective than shelter based rehabilitation. There are a few such existing models of community based rehabilitation in Nepal, Bangladesh and India. Community based rehabilitation programmes have not grown much as it means investing in districts and rural areas, and it is challenging for city based organisations to implement interventions and services in faraway districts. However, rural NGOs are effective in implementing community based care programmes and once they have negotiated with Panchayats, police and block development offices to provide social, financial and health services to survivors, the approach has been sustainable, rights based and strengthens the government response system to trafficked survivors.
  • It is a myth that appropriate recovery and rehabilitation services can be better provided in shelters than in community based rehabilitation programmes. The staff hired in shelter homes are poorly paid and it is a challenge to find, recruit and retain good therapists, educators or trainers in shelters. Therefore, the survivors must rely on mainstream service providers, in hospitals and chambers. The chances of getting employment based on the vocational trainings taught to survivors in shelter homes is near zero. Even customised projects wherein a few NGOs have collaborated with hospitality sector company to get jobs in services has been a few, with most of them failing over time. On the contrary, when NGOs tried creating in-house training and production units, the dependence of survivors on the NGOs have grown for survival, income and this dependence becomes an additional barrier to their reintegration.
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.

Disclaimer : The article was earlier published on The News Minute, and republished here with the author's permission