The Failure of Anti-Trafficking Efforts
On May 13, 2009, the Home Secretary of India said in a seminar organized by the Central Bureau of Investigation that there are 1.3 million prostituted children in India right now. Most of them are girls. The National Human Rights Commission of India has stated that the average age of entry into prostitution for young girls is now between nine and twelve.
The fact that the numbers of the trafficked are going up and the ages coming down displays the failure of those government and non-government strategies which only focus on HIV/AIDS management and half hearted rescue operations combined with shelters for victims. These ignore the root cause, which is the demand for women and girls for sexual exploitation. Even the Sept. 19 Ministry of Home Affairs advisory to state governments on combating human trafficking falls short of asking for higher arrests and convictions of buyers and traffickers, though it recognizes that “trafficking in human beings, especially of women and children, is the fastest growing organized crime and an area of concern.”
Demand for trafficked people – from end-users (buyers of prostituted sex) to traffickers who make a profit off the trade (the recruiters, transporters, pimps, brothel owners, money lenders, etc., who form the intricate chain in the organized criminal networks) — has become the most immediate cause for the expansion of the trafficking industry. But the existing outdated law, Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956, (ITPA), does not address it adequately.
Apne Aap Women Worldwide has been campaigning to have ITPA amended. This survivor-led campaign is seeking to penalize buyers and traffickers. If the numbers of convictions against buyers and traffickers go up, the cost of human trafficking will become untenable. Increased convictions will also restore a sense of justice to the survivors of prostitution.
Countries like Sweden have gone after the traffickers by bringing them to book, confiscating their illegal assets created out of trafficking, making them compensate for the damages and penalizing end-users (buyers of prostituted sex). This has seen a significant decrease in trafficking. In 1999, it was estimated that 125,000 Swedish men bought about 2,500 prostituted women one or more times per year, before the law came into force. By 2002, this figure had fallen to no more than 1,500 women.
In running this campaign, Apne Aap Women Worldwide has come up against some entrenched interests. Ironically, this opposition has included many HIV/AIDS management projects that work in red-light areas and hire pimps and brothel managers as “peer educators” to gain easy access to the brothels for the purpose of condom distribution. They turn a blind eye to the little girls and adult women kept in a system of bondage and control, who cannot say no to unwanted sex let alone unprotected sex. In fact a representative of the National AIDS Control Organization once told me: “If the brothels didn’t exist, where will we distribute the condoms?”
The hiring of pimps and brothel managers not only legitimizes them at the cost of delegitimizing the rights of the little girl or woman locked up in the brothel but also silences her.
Apne Aap has been organizing these silenced girls and women to join together in small self-help groups in the red-light areas and high-risk slums of Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal for the last seven years. They are asking repeatedly for lives free of all forms of male violence and a zero tolerance policy for prostitution and trafficking in human beings. They are asking for the punishment of those who exploit them as a guarantee of safety and security. They are asking for access to safe housing, counselling, education, and job training.
Regrettably, most government projects offer them either a bed in a shelter or a condom in a brothel and a policy that puts more emphasis on protecting male buyers from disease rather than protecting girls and women from male buyers.
Ruchira Gupta is founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-trafficking organization based in India. She recently won the Clinton Global Citizen Award for her leadership in civil society.