“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.