Monday, July 30, 2018

Let’s discuss Human Trafficking today. Are you still there?

Priti Patkar (Photo Credits: Supreet Singh)
A subject that has long been pushed under the rug and has failed to find a place amidst important table discussions, it is only recently that policymakers have begun to treat Trafficking in Persons as a real problem. However, there have been a few who have relentlessly been striving for the recognition of the rights of this invisible group. One of them is Ms. Priti Patkar, the Co-founder and Director of Prerana – an organization working to combat human trafficking and end second generational prostitution since 1986. Prerana leads the South-Asian Anti-Trafficking movement and works for the Rights, Dignity and Choices of Woman/Child victims of sex trade, children rescued from Beggary and Child Sexual Maltreatment. We spoke with Ms. Patkar and learn about her journey; what is it that inspired her to be a leader and fight for a cause that was considered to be a stigma even to be spoken about. Here is her story.

The younger years
I was born in a middle class family and went to a middle class school. I grew up in a neighborhood comprising government employees. For the most part, I had a very sheltered childhood. I was brought up in a very protective environment.

Everyone’s personality, attitude and behavior is a reflection of his/her childhood. For me it was no different. In the early years of my life, my father helped me through my journey. Usually, the essence of education loses its value when it is treated as an indicator of success or pressurizing competition. However, my father’s approach was quite refreshing. He treated this as essential to learning, and that was it. For me, this stands out, as back then, forty-fifty years ago, when the norm was producing engineers and doctors, he was different and supported me in the choices I made.

I pursued Arts after my 10th standard. Later, I went on to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Nirmala Niketan College. I had professional, and formal social work education which provided me with adequate exposure to human rights, understanding of gender issues, the problems that plague our society and approaches/programs employed to tackle them. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Following this, I went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to do my masters.  

The birth of Prerana
It was 1986 – the year when the entire world was discussing child rights. With the world, the United Nations was recognizing the significance of defining the rights for every child. Soon, in 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was globally adopted. Yet, years of discourse leading up to this document of declaration of child rights excluded the children of the Red Light areas. We realized that none of the dialogue around child rights looked at issues pertaining to children born to prostituted women, and their social problems. While global discussion focused on child trafficking, there was no discussion on inter-generational trafficking.

I remember going to the RLA in Kamathipura as a 22- year-old student, right out of TISS. What I saw drove me to create Prerana. I had the picture of the innocent and defenseless in front of me - generations after generations caught in a vicious cycle of exploitation; children sitting in the filth, made to buy condoms or alcohol and sleep under the bed, as their mothers attended customer after customer. The deeper we looked into their lives, the more we realized that every child born in the red light area would end up in the sex trade or allied activities. It was necessary to shed light on children born to prostituted women, focus on what happens to them, and how they could be supported. That is why Prerana was born – to break this cycle of exploitation and inter-generational trafficking.

Initial days for us as Prerana were not easy. The laws that prevailed for the protection of children three decades ago were not as well defined. We witnessed a total absence of several focal areas to cater to the needs of these vulnerable children. Furthermore, every time we tried to bring up the topic for discussion, whether it was with civic society, stakeholders involved in implementation of the law or policymakers, the response often received was, "What else do you expect of these children? Prostitution is a necessary social evil; who better to substitute their mother than these children born to prostitutes?". Our efforts were met with such apathy.

Of course, after being exposed to the life of this segment that is at the bottom rung of the social structure, perhaps absent from the very pyramid, giving up ceases to be an option! We kept building on our efforts. We began by addressing the civic and human rights of the women in the sex trade. They had none; no ration cards or bank accounts, and as a result, no civic identity. We wanted to get the state to look at these issues, the judiciary and the police to stop being apathetic towards the lives of these women and children. We had to help the vulnerable build their voices.

In 1996, a mass raid was conducted in a brothel because of a suo moto writ petition filed by the then Chief Justice of Maharashtra. The entire experience made us realize a very essential thing–there was no systematic provision for or any attention given to what happens to a victim post the rescue! This meant, the chances of victimized women and children being re-trafficked post rescue were a high possibility, and in many cases a reality. The need was to take a hard look at the existing provision in the law for when a person was rescued from the sex trade. Our attempt to understand the situation led us to realize: a lot of these women did not cooperate in the prosecution of their traffickers due to lack of support post rescue; there was no victim witness protection or support system for the victims or intimidated witnesses. The women did not trust the system or the law for their protection. There was no way to get them to testify as the society blamed the women; they perceived them as perpetrators and not victims.

The experience brought determination with it – the determination to advocate and amplify our voices for the rights of the victims before, during and post rescue, leading towards sustainable rehabilitation. We understood that livelihood training has to be creative, current and market-oriented. We also talked about alternatives of rehabilitation; all forms of rehabilitation need not be in an incarcerated setting. For generating sufficient awareness around the situation, processes and laws, sensitization, training, advocacy and scaling-up of post rescue reforms, were the approaches that we felt the need for, and also what we practice.

Of course, changing a mind-set takes a lifetime. Of many arguments that came our way, one that we often heard was, "These women already make a lot of money in the sex trade, so why should we spend more money on such women and their children? These women fail to take care of their children, so why do they have them in the first place?" Some argued that by starting services for children of the prostitutes, we were absolving them of their responsibilities. Some came with a “guarantee-wanted” board; they needed assurance that this “investment” will not be futile, and that the children would eventually not end up in the sex trade or any other criminal activities. What they could not understand is – rights are for all, irrespective of to whom they are born, where they are born and when they are born.

We also advocated for the reproductive health rights of women in the sex trade; reproductive health rights are not exclusive to the wealthy. We questioned the issue, put together a document and sought a mindset change. 

In the development space, service-based interventions are extremely crucial. However, the impact is much larger if best practices, approaches or systems translate into policies. Hence, with a strong service base, our next step was to address the glaring need for resources on this issue. The outcome was the first Anti-Trafficking Centre (ATC) in South Asia. The ATC was a knowledge hub, a medium to share and disseminate our learnings on the field or in research about Human Trafficking and its destination crimes. We also conducted trainings of duty bearers and other positive stakeholders.

Over the years, we grew and so did technology. We noticed the widening gap between the availability of and access to resources. This realization led to our latest development –  the creation of an online Anti-Trafficking Resource portal –  The ATC portal is a knowledge hub focusing on verticals such as research, publications, advocacy and policy in context with the broad human trafficking issue and its destination crimes. This is our platform to carry our advocacy efforts to a global level.

Milestones and Anecdotes
Every time a woman recognized her rights, a child cleared board exams or one of our children took the mother out of the Red Light Area into the mainstream, it was a milestone, and it still is. Although, when our programs or models are replicated, adopted and up-scaled by those who drive the Anti-Human Trafficking movement alongside, it feels so good!

So many stories etched in my memory… For instance, a group of girls was rescued from a brothel and placed in a government shelter home. A session to help them open up was conducted, but no one shared a thing. To break the silence, I asked, "Why don't we talk about our lives?" No one responded. Then I asked, "Why don't we talk about our likes and dislikes?" There was still no response. So I volunteered to tell them about a day in my life. I told them about my daily life undertakings and activities. Still, no one opened up. Suddenly, one girl stood up and said she wanted to share something. She told me, "You sleep at night, but I lay wide awake. You switch off the lights at night, so it's dark, but for us, it is a world of darkness despite the light running on electricity. You women sleep with one man at night, we sleep with 4 to 5 men every night. The man you sleep with, the age difference may not be much but the men that we sleep with often are as old as our fathers. Your home is probably huge, but my home, my universe is ‘6 by 4’. You probably enjoy a meal on your table, but our lives are customer controlled. The customer is the king."

This incident occurred almost 20 years after being in this sector and seeing almost everything that my eyes could have. Nevertheless, it shook us so much. It hit us, how we are with our own children, yet how different we are towards the children in the sex trade. We don't even have a proper understanding of multiple rapes!

Yet another anecdote I recollect goes back to when I was sitting with a group of pre-primary (Balwadi) children. I was pregnant at that time. Of the lot, there was a child around six and a half or seven, who was still in the Balwadi. A child aged around six said, "so-and-so boy so-and-so girl pe line maarta hai" (so-and-so boy is hitting on so-and-so girl). I feigned ignorance and pretended like I didn't understand. A point came when one girl said that it meant the boy loves the girl. Still, I kept up the charade of being ignorant, and said, "Love is good. We should all love each other!" Then, the boy aged around seven asked me, "Are you really this ignorant? It is impossible that you are pregnant without understanding the kind of love they are talking about!"

That was when I realized how shy we are as adult caregivers and change-makers around the whole issue of sex and sexuality. It also struck me that because these children speak about sex, we as a society view them differently. But here is the point – their only exposure, day in and day out has been this, of course they will speak about sex!

If you see Prerana’s work, it is more about scaling deep for us. What it means is adding numbers to our program does not matter, what matters is handholding a child throughout till she or he is out of this space and develops into a responsible and financially independent young adult, away from the darkness of the Red Light Area. Scaling deep for us, even then, wasn't just about protection issues or giving them a place to stay, but about getting the children to channelize their understanding of sex and sexuality, and getting society to understand why they were speaking about it. 

Crossing hurdles
During our initial years, our biggest challenge was social indifference, apathy and the lack of trust in us. For the outside world, we were “experimental and adventurous” and they wouldn't invest in children who, as per their assumption, were most likely to end up in the sex trade.

Often, we were asked for guaranteed deliverables and outcomes. At this point, we would try to make them see that four pillars of child rights – protection, survival, participation and development – are for EVERY child.

As and when we discovered problems in the Red Light Area, we structured services that tried to offer solutions. The Night Care Center (NCC) was not just our first, but also a pioneer model globally. The NCC offered mothers a safe place to protect their children from dangers of the red light district during the critical night hours. Initially, even finding a space for NCC was difficult; people were not willing to give us the place because it would be frequented by prostitutes. Today, we have 4 NCCs providing a comprehensive package of services on a 24x7 basis such as: protected shelter, wholesome nutrition (3 meals in a day), free medical and health facilities, and education and recreational facilities.

The challenges posed by the traffickers and the pimps came much later. Initially, they were happy that we were educating the children. For them, higher education meant richer clients. However, the moment they recognized our struggles were to ensure these children walk the path towards freedom and a career beyond the sex trade, they began seeing it as an affront. 

Eventually, we started our Educational Support Program, strengthened our Post Rescue Operations programs, set up a shelter home as a model for minimum standards of Care for girl children between the age of 8 to 18 years, expanded our work with children in need of care and protection, initiated an After Care Project and a project working for the protection of children rescued from beggary.

Amidst all this, the challenge that has persisted is the treatment of these children and women as criminals and not as victims. We constantly strive to establish these women as Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation. These are people suffering the worst form of exploitation, refused a chance to reintegrate with the mainstream. Of course, we try.

Let’s acknowledge that the recent decade has seen quite a change in the treatment of the issue by the government and policymakers. Human Trafficking is being viewed as a serious offence and child friendly laws and systems are being sought out in our provisions. However, that approach has still not rubbed off on to the civic society or the implementers of the law as it should. We are still struggling to adopt the law in its spirit. The stakeholders involved in the implementation of laws need to undergo sensitization and law trainings.

The bottom line – it is a long battle. We have just touched upon the surface. Although, what has been so crucial to all our accomplishments or the little work we have done is the collaborative support provided by the other NGOs, our partners, the police officials, the Child Welfare Committee and other stakeholders working with Children in Need of Care and Protection. Collaboration and unity is the key to working in this space. That is what will ensure that no child falls through the cracks of social apathy, and that the RIGHTS, CHOICES and DIGNITY of these women and children are restored and protected. After all, children cannot and should not be kept waiting!