“Until a few years ago, most victims of trafficking were treated like the accused”

It all began with an effort to rescue a Tamil girl forced into commercial sex work at Mumbai’s Kamathipura. Twenty-five years on, G.Jebaraj has to his credit the rescue and rehabilitation of some 2,500 victims of trafficking. In a conversation with Vidya Venkat, he stressed the need for law-enforcing agencies and the judiciary to adopt a victim-centric approach while tackling the crime.

He was working as a chemist in Mumbai in the early 1980s, until his first brush with the plight of women trapped in the sex trade happened.

“Some of my friends who had visited red-light areas told me about a girl from Tirunelveli who was forced to work there. It was not easy trying to get her out,” he says.

The experience taught him that trafficking women was an intricate, organised crime that needed steady effort from law-enforcing agencies to be curbed.

Working as a volunteer with a non-governmental organisation called Savadhan, Mr. Jebaraj was instrumental in helping several women trapped in the flesh trade from coming out of it.

A life-changing experience was the mass rescue of hundreds of Tamil girls from brothels in Bombay.

“In 1990, we rescued over 800 Tamil women with the help of the police. Even a special train service called ‘Mukti express’ was arranged to bring them back to the State. Most of them were infected with HIV,” he says.

In 1997, he set up Just Trust with financial support from the International Organisation for Migrants. Mr. Jebaraj says much of the earlier challenges remain nevertheless.

“Even today, there are places in Mumbai and other cities such as Kolkata where women trafficked from Tamil Nadu are engaged in sex work,” he says.

The problem, he says, lies with the lack of a victim-centric approach from law-enforcing agencies towards this issue. “Trafficking women and children for commercial sexual exploitation is as serious a crime as the trade in arms and ammunition, but it has not been given the seriousness it deserves,” he says.

“Until a few years ago, most victims of trafficking were treated like the accused,” he says. “In fact, women traffickers and victims caught during police raids were kept together in the vigilance home,” he says.

The practice has changed in the past few years only after a series of progressive judgments on the issue in various high courts.

“The rate of conviction in cases of trafficking is very poor. Unless the support networks for human trafficking are dismantled, there is no use just rescuing women every time they fall into the trap,” he says.

Substance abuse

“Most victims of trafficking indulge in substance abuse. They also suffer from emotional and psychological problems,” he says.

But most vigilance homes and other institutions dealing with trafficked women lack a holistic approach towards rehabilitating the victims, he points out.

At present, he is lobbying the government to help create sustainable alternative livelihood for victims of trafficking.

He ends on a hopeful note: “Only a few months back, a victim girl we rescued got married. Change is possible and we are moving towards that goal, slowly but steadily.”