The Trafficking of Persons bill is good, but not good enough

Rehabilitation of victims needs more attention, says coalition of NGOs, researchers

Updated - October 18, 2016 02:11 pm IST

Published - June 26, 2016 12:00 am IST - MUMBAI:

On May 31 this year, Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi released a draft of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill that was billed as the country’s first ever anti-human-trafficking law. Its main purposes are to unify existing anti-trafficking laws, increase the definition to cover labour-trafficking and not just sex-trafficking, as earlier legislations like the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act 0f 1956 did. Crucially, the Bill promises to treat survivors of trafficking as victims in needs of assistance and to make rehabilitation a right for those who are rescued.

That’s the good part. The recognition of human trafficking as a massive problem is long overdue. According to the UN office for Drugs and Crime, South Asia, with India at its centre, is the fastest growing region for human trafficking in the world. The Global Slavery Index of 2016, published by the Australia-based rights group Walk Free Foundation, says that Indian is home to the largest number of enslaved people in the world, with about 18 million children and adults victim to modern slavery. Dealing with the many complex forms of this kind of slavery has long been a problem for law enforcement; Ms. Gandhi herself acknowledged that police often no distinction between trafficker and trafficked, jailing both.

But a coalition of NGOs, community-based organisations, and researchers, who work mostly in Maharashtra and West Bengal — many of whom were part of the initial consultation process for the Bill — argue that there are some critical loopholes in the way that the Draft Bill outlines the concept of rehabilitation. This coalition has now submitted a list of concerns to the WCD Ministry, which is accepting suggestions on the Bill till June 31. The earliest that the Bill is expected to reach Parliament is in December.

The coalition is important because about 40-50 per cent victims of trafficking in Maharashtra are from Bengal or Bangladesh. In 2014, the governments of West Bengal and Maharashtra signed a memorandum of understanding to ensure identification and repatriation of women and children who are victims of trafficking.

According to Triveni Balkrishna Acharya, founder and president of the Rescue Foundation, which operates three shelter homes in Maharashtra, there are positives in the Bill, most notably the move to make rehabilitation a right and provisions for cross-border repatriation of victims in case they come from countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. But, she says, one of the Bill’s biggest weaknesses is that its language is extremely unclear in terms of how rehabilitation will take place and who will be responsible for it. One of her biggest learnings, through years of field experience, is that the current framework is actually very restrictive in terms of reintegrating victims into society, which should be the ultimate aim: “Under the current law, it says when a victim is rescued the family needs to come and collect her within 28 days. If that doesn’t happen then a magistrate-level judge passes an order for detention of the victim in a protective home ranging from one to three years.”

The problem starts here, because there is a limited range of things one can do within an in-house operation. “While the girls are with us we can give them limited training in things like craft and maybe to work in beauty salons” Ms Acharya says. “The reality is that it doesn’t give them much exposure and there’s no guarantee that they can then go out and make a living.” Instead, she suggests that rather than a detention order, the victims should be allowed to go out and be trained in other mainstream vocational training facilities. “There are options such as training in hotels for housekeeping or training for things like being a security guard that we are unable to get the victims to do right now, because being in a protective home is very restrictive. We are mindful of course, that while they go out some protection will be provided for them.” She also points out that the Bill was unclear about which authority will plan rehabilitation. Would it be the District Magistrate? Would he have dedicated staff for this? “When we were first consulted we made sure the draft had a lot of provisions about these things but they were subsequently removed.”

Roop Sen, another member of the coalition of NGOs, and a researcher who was also part of the central advisory committee and parliamentary committee that drafted the Bill, concurs that the lack of clarity on rehabilitation seriously hampers the legislation. The chief concern, he says, is first addressing the trauma that victims go through. “Trauma is something that gets totally undetected in the current process. Victims and survivors are only given tests for AIDS, STDs and a general health state whereas studies have shown that a high proportion of victims suffer from dysthymia, which is a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. In order to treat this, victims need to be given access to mainstream healthcare facilities rather than being confined in protective homes.” He also agrees with Ms Acharya that victims need access to mainstream vocational education.

Another problem Mr. Sen identifies is that in the Bill there is only one mention of after-care for victims that may relate to their reintegration into society, but this only applies to victims who have been in shelter homes. “In our experience about 45 per cent of survivors escape themselves from red light areas, or take a client’s help to escape. There is no mention of rehabilitation for them.”

While the Bill talks about short- and long-term homes, he says, there is no actual measure for when a victim is said to be rehabilitated. “There is a WHO measure for rehabilitation of disabled persons that we have suggested can be easily adapted for victims of trafficking.”

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