Recently, we held a workshop in Telangana on digital safety and rights for a group of young 18-year-old women. During our discussions with them, they told us about an incident involving five of their classmates. One of the girls had received a call from a stranger. Instead of hanging up, she continued the conversation as he sounded pleasant.
Subsequently he made friends with her – or rather groomed her into thinking he was a friend. The conversations continued over several weeks and she even introduced him and his friends to other classmates. One day the five girls did not turn up in school and later when their absence was recorded, they were traced by their digital footprint to the state of Odisha.
This kind of grooming is a common modus operandi of human traffickers. Older men prey on girls by posing as peers and put on a friendly demeanour and pretend to have a patient ear as the girls/young women pour their hearts out on their frustrating domestic situation. Often these girls are at a point in their lives where their parents are pressuring them to marry and want them to give up school. The economic burden of bringing up a girl child is crippling for many parents and instead of educating their child to have a good career, they want to palm her off to another family. For the girls, they have dreams and aspirations that are not in sync with their parents’ goals and their wings are constantly being clipped to meet the restrictive socio-cultural gender norms. They become more vulnerable to any stranger who listens to them and gives them personal attention.
The “system” supports these harmful and restrictive practices by both parents and groomers. There is very little education both formal and informal available to counter these ideas, minimal counselling and absolutely poor resource centres for survivors to seek legal, medical and rehabilitative recourse. Barring a few NGOs (the need is often greater than the services provided) and sparse one stop crisis centres, there really is no help available at arm’s reach for these girls.
Crimes Against Women And Girls
As per India’s National Crime Record Bureau, 2278, 2208, and 1714 cases of trafficking were reported in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. 85.2% of the cases have been charge-sheeted. In 2020, 4,709 persons were victimised, out of which 2,222 were children, including 1,377 boys and 845 girls. It also projects that 2151 children were rescued out of which 801 were girls. Among adult victims, 535 were males, and 1952 were females.
Therefore the recent study “Optimizing Screening and Support Services for Gender-Based Violence and Trafficking in Persons Victims” is important because it highlights the need for a holistic approach to survivors of gender based violence (GBV) and trafficking in persons (TIP). Often, we view gender- based violence and trafficking as two separate issues but in reality, they are a product of a patriarchal society which disenfranchises women, restricts their formal participation in society and limits their access to financial independence.
Historically trafficking is linked to prostitution and red-light areas and the burden of stigma becomes much higher. It is assumed that the woman has more agency, has made a “choice” and left home on her own as in the case of the five girls. There is fear in breaking the silence. But when one delves deeper, it is often that they are escaping one hellish nightmare which unfortunately leads them to another. Therefore, it is important that people in power understand the interlinkages of these two issues and, instead of attacking a woman, they dismantle the patriarchy in society.
The study highlights the research conducted in India which identified the lack of standard protocols and indicators for identification and screening of victims of TIP and GBV, gaps in the legal framework in addressing the cases of human trafficking, geographical unevenness in the availability of services where services are existent largely in the cities, and many barriers to accessing services by the victims. Inadequate funding and resource constraints is a major challenge to efficient delivery of services, given which, integrating the services provided to TIP and GBV victims is a valid argument. The study presents in-depth research on the current situation of the screening and identification services, and the possibility of integrating the services for the victims.
Given the sparse resources, it is essential that existing centres combine services for TIP and GBV victims. But the stigma affecting TIP victims is real and several service providers including NGOs are reluctant to offer integrated services. However, when I spoke with Nandita Baruah, Country Representative, The Asia Foundation, she said, “We should understand the intersectionality between trafficking and gender-based violence, where the latter is one of the critical push-factors for trafficking.”
Nandita further emphasises that the laws for both these crimes should not be combined. But the legal definitions can define and specify how the services can be accessed by the victims/survivors. The government Swadhar scheme can be expanded to include this vision. The Ujjawala centres which are fairly large in North East India can be used to combine resources and offer a large basket of services that will provide livelihood skills, psychosocial, medical, legal help and rehabilitation to help young women have life options and help.
The research further recommends that it is important to have large scale gender sensitisation and awareness training on TIP and GBV at all levels in all parts of the country so that the community and institutions can monitor, prevent and respond to these crimes. Participation of village leaders/ panchayats, and religious leaders in strong community-based monitoring units will be effective first responders in preventing TIP and GBV at the neighbourhood level. I would add that parents and teachers should be added to this list for a more holistic approach in prevention.
As for the five girls, their status is unknown but should they be “rescued,” they should have the right to rebuild their lives with dignity. We owe it to our girls to provide them a safe environment to study, play and live in so they do not become targeted by traffickers.
ElsaMarie DSilva is the Founder and President of Red Dot Foundation Global (USA) and Red Dot Foundation (India), non-profit organizations that work on gender equality and justice. The views expressed are the author’s own.