Barriers to anti-trafficking initiatives
Thematic analysis revealed that several common problems were hindering the anti-trafficking movement that victims and leaders alike believed need to be addressed. These barriers include police corruption and lack of enforcement of national law, discrimination toward trafficking victims, lack of funding, and lack of government involvement. Below we summarize interview content, including quotes from interviewees.
Police corruption and lack of enforcement of national law
Interviewees reported that despite the existence of trafficking laws on the national level, the implementation and enforcement of these laws had been neglected, often hindered by limitations of capacity and resources. This fragmentation of enforcement of national law was problematic. Interviewees stated that national law has a very high standard, and often there is sometimes limited cooperation from the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and police to appropriately comply with it, largely due to the governmental staff’s lack of awareness towards the law and its application. There were cases in which procedural issues to document and/or declare bonded labor resulted in opportunities for police corruption. Examples of corruption mentioned by respondents included utilizing court date delays to tamper with evidence, falsifying evidence, relying on the unscientific age verification test, incorrectly applying the wrong legal section (e.g. rape cases are not filed as rape), tampering/threatening the witness, bribing officials, rejecting bail, and appealing to higher courts.
Furthermore, respondents mentioned that there had been several instances of police officers forcing trafficked girls to change their statements against their traffickers and tampering with medical records and age verification. This allowed for a more lenient sentence for traffickers, delay of investigations, and the prolongment of the time trafficked girls were kept in the police station.
Criminalization of victims. As a result, trafficking survivors were sometimes criminalized instead of their traffickers, rather than being treated as victims in need of assistance and protection. An interviewee from an NGO narrated one instance in which innocent individuals were taken away by the police, some of them previous victims of trafficking.
“There was one incident where a girl named Varuna [pseudonym] disappeared. When the police came to investigate, my brother was tied with a chain and dragged away by the police. Other women were also taken under the premise that they were ‘bought.’ Some of these girls had already been rescued from the flesh trade. Now the same exploitation is happening to them.”
These instances pointed to the pervasive nature of police corruption throughout the system. While several NGOs have filed public interest litigations against the police, they expressed frustrations with the difficulty in properly filing cases and getting such cases tried in court. Even when cases proceeded to court, the NGOs continued to encounter corruption and tampering of evidence.
Distrust of police. As a result of the police officers’ corrupt acts, victims felt extremely uneasy in the presence of the police. One survivor stated that the police did not respect their privacy nor listen to their grievances:
“The police do not let us live in peace. We can’t sleep, in fear of the police, because they might come any time for interrogations. They ask us to open our wardrobes, suitcases, and then our personal belongings. They never listen to our grievances.”
Not only have trafficking victims experienced mistreatment by the police, but they have also faced widespread discrimination by others in the community, one example being their mistreatment by merchants. One survivor stated that when merchants learned that they are trafficking victims, they significantly raised the prices:
“Whenever we go shopping, if the shopkeepers know we are trafficking victims, they automatically increase the price of goods. Taxi drivers also ask us for more money. It is not just the police, everyone harasses us here.”
Lack of funding for NGO activities
Many NGOs have expressed limitations in their activities due to a lack of funding and resources. One grassroots NGO said that working in anti-trafficking is difficult and that one NGO alone cannot make a difference against the most organized crime in the world today, especially as operations to help people exit the situations of trafficking are not always followed by a criminal case. Multiple respondents discussed how it was clear that an NGO requires funding to survive in this industry, but fundraising requires time and manpower, which detracts from fieldwork. This challenge was immense for them, as they believed that grassroots NGOs understand the issue of trafficking and what is happening on the ground and are a particularly significant source of support in villages.
Lack of investment in infrastructure. Furthermore, interviewees reported that finding placement for trafficking victims after leaving their situations of exploitation could be extremely challenging due to a lack of adequate safe havens. This created potentially retraumatizing environments for victims that had exited trafficking, and who may have also experienced prolonged stays in the police department due to the presence of inadequate and inappropriate shelter homes. One NGO staff person remarked,
“There lacks infrastructure for trafficking victims, especially the mentally challenged. They push all the mentally challenged women to this particular shelter home, which is supposed to house vulnerable people who are in need of care and protection. But these mentally challenged victims need more psychological support than the average person and there isn’t adequate infrastructure that gives them this support.”
Lack of government involvement
While it is the government’s role to provide shelter for children, documentation (e.g. release certificates, provisions, and sustainable rehabilitation solutions), and home verifications, many trafficking victims expressed a lack of governmental support and action, and the need for more collaboration between NGOs and the government. One government official stated,
“Two years ago, the government was not thinking so much about this type of issue. It is the NGO who actually took charge of setting up a connection with the government and only then do villages start functioning in the districts.”
Moreover, while it is the role of the government’s CWC to handle trafficking cases in terms of home verification, assistance for children in exiting situations of trafficking, parental identification, and linkage to shelters, the number of trafficking cases far surpassed the government’s capacity to handle them. The bureaucracy, lack of efficiency, and politically influenced CWC team member selection further hindered the prosecution of trafficking cases. In turn, these inefficiencies delayed the release of children from shelter. In addition, CWC only worked during business hours, which posed a challenge when anti-trafficking operations are performed outside of these times.
Low capacity. Additionally, there were delays in aiding people in exiting situations of trafficking due to low capacity of the government officials, who must follow all protocols, and accordingly could not always act quickly enough, leading to some children being trafficked away from the site of concern prior to anti-trafficking intervention to that site. Low capacity also created a large backlog of cases, which is exacerbated by high turnover, including investigation officers being transferred at any time.
While we asked for and were given ample information as to what members of the community felt were problems that hindered the progress of the anti-trafficking movement, major themes also emerged from interviewees regarding how efforts could be improved. The two most common recommendations were increasing cooperation, coordination, and communication, in addition to empowering trafficking survivors. Interestingly, interviewees discussed more about empowerment as the main tool of reform than the other recommendation. This is because they believe empowering trafficking victims by giving them the tools needed to rebuild their lives post-trafficking is the most sustainable solution to prevent them from falling victim to trafficking another time.
Increase cooperation, coordination, and communication
Respondents discussed how heightened collaboration between the government and NGOs would sustain a robust, systematic approach to anti-trafficking programs’ shared goal of helping people permanently exit the cycle of trafficking. While there are many government schemes, programs, laws, and legislations in place to address trafficking, the efficacy of these anti-trafficking measures in accomplishing programs’ common goal is hindered by government corruption. Subsequently, it then becomes the NGO’s responsibility to investigate this and ensure that protocols are being followed. In doing so, NGOs can ensure that trafficking victims successfully gain access to government schemes, programs, and legal compensation by following standardized operating procedures and protocols in line with existing government and law enforcement efforts. If existing processes established by the government and law are enhanced and executed properly by NGOs, victims are more likely to successfully remain removed from trafficked situations. For example, the government-run CWC’s scope encompasses the removal of victims from exploitation as well as monitoring. In that realm, there is significant room for collaboration with NGOs to provide necessary treatment for victims. However, one interviewee from an NGO stressed that NGOs currently must take it upon themselves to actively facilitate better communication with the government:
“We need more communication with the government, but the government has to come in front and take the initiative. It is important that we have this communication established because if we are not working together, only parallel to each other, then there will not be as much momentum as if we were pushing for the same thing on the same set of tracks.”
Another interviewee from an NGO expressed similar sentiments, stressing also that active efforts on the part of the government to reach out to and work with NGOs would be greatly appreciated:
“The government can improve NGO-government relationships if they take the time to call us, listen to us, or share news and updates with us.”
Furthermore, a common sentiment expressed by NGOs was that they felt a lack of adequate infrastructure provided by the government to NGOs. In one interview, a member of the CWC said that there is a need for higher quality facilities to better serve every member of the CWC as they pursue their full potential.
“I think the government should improve the facilities given to the CWC, as it is currently not good enough now.”
While interviewees touched upon several issues between the government and NGOs, they also mentioned where they believe there have been existing successes. These successes demonstrate the immense anti-trafficking potential inherent in increased cooperation, coordination, and communication between the government and NGOs. Notably, interviewees believe that one very important success by the government is recognition of the contributions NGOs make to the anti-trafficking movement in India. According to one NGO employee,
“The government acknowledges that NGOs are doing marvelous work. They do not deny the number of cases that have been entrusted on us and the successes we have had with helping trafficking victims get back on their feet.”
Interviewees believe that this governmental recognition is responsible for many of the NGOs’ ability to make positive impacts on trafficked victims through conducting successful operations to dissolve situations of trafficking, providing safe shelters and centers for children, providing education, providing life skills training (e.g. computers, sewing) and vocational training, and giving children a future. Governmental recognition of NGOs’ abilities is also important for turning research into policy. An NGO employee stated,
“The research and studies that NGOs have put before the government allow the government to establish shelter homes, rescue teams, provide more compensation for the victims. The data and figures that we collect promote change and put pressure on policymakers and bring awareness to the public.”
Ultimately, if steps are taken to address interviewees’ concerns and build upon these current successes to increase dialogue, collaboration, and notions of shared responsibility between the government and NGOs, the needs of trafficking victims will be better served as they pursue safety, healing, community reintegration, and more post-trafficking.
Empowerment of trafficking victims
Interviewees representing NGOs and trafficking victims alike believe in the efficacy of community centers, CWCs, community vigilance committees, and microsavings groups in preventing cases of re-trafficking. They also recognized the importance of victims coping with discrimination and lack of acceptance from society. Many interviewees expressed the need to sensitize communities, police, and government workers to promote awareness of trafficking, and decrease this stigma. Increased awareness also has the potential to inspire vigilance within the community and cause the recognition of traffickers and illegal activity. Furthermore, many felt that it was important to raise awareness within vulnerable populations about the lure of foreign employment as a front for trafficking. Members of this community were often unaware of the various forms of trafficking, as well as the legal system and their rights. The following include a myriad of the aforementioned empowering avenues of increasing anti-trafficking efficacy mentioned by interviewees.
Community centers. One interviewee started as a volunteer at one of the community centers and is now a program manager. They discussed projects that bring members of both the trafficking and local community together in a joint effort to decrease the possibility of re-trafficking.
“With the help of local people who want to break the lock that threatens to chain their children to the trafficking business, we have built a large community center. The girls that have been saved from or are trying to escape trafficking work for the community in these centers. This is a sign of our success.”
CWCs. Members of the CWC stressed that the collective pressure of a committee to demand justice from the system is not only a sign of the strength of an organization, but also a convincing reason to invest in and join CWCs.
“When the local police took away our innocent girls, we went to the Inspector General of Police who listened to us and made a phone call to get the girls released. At midnight, they were dropped off in their houses. This was an organizational achievement and showed the strength of persistence and organization.”
“The girls here have lots of talents, like singing, dancing, painting, but they score very low in exams because the teachers who know they have been trafficked before deliberately give them low marks. The committees help by talking to the teachers and demanding just treatment for the girls.”
Members also stressed that the committees educate and give children skillsets that help them secure a better future.
“The committees run educational classes that give the children confidence. They are learning skills and progressing with their lives.”
“The committee is full of benefits. Our children were previously uneducated, as we could not afford to send our children to school. Our kids now know how to read and write. They taught our kids very well.”
Community vigilance committees. Interviewees highlighted the role of women in community vigilance committees and the overall importance of women’s empowerment in the anti-trafficking movement. Empowering women both economically and politically through self-help groups and community vigilance groups creates financial independence and promotes participation in local governments, ultimately fostering intergenerational resilience and prosperity.
“With the help of local people and leaders, we form community vigilance groups. These groups give women political empowerment to address and raise trafficking issues to the local administration.”
“Women in the community vigilance committees sell bangles and sell them from village to village. At each village they collect information. If any suspected cases of trafficking arise, they inform the community vigilance leaders.”
Microsavings groups. Many agreed that the first important step toward the prevention of re-trafficking is to understand the origins of trafficking. Interviewees agreed that even if victims exit trafficking and are reintegrated back to their families, they will be re-trafficked if the original situation that they came from does not change. Such risk factors identified were poverty, socioeconomic factors, family issues, cultural norms, lack of education, debt bondage systems, and gender discrimination.
Poverty was the fundamental driving force for trafficking and re-trafficking and was what shaped socioeconomic disparities and family dynamics. One NGO said that the lack of livelihood options in villages created a power imbalance between traffickers and victims, and that it was important to provide livelihood opportunities to stop trafficking. Victims are lured by the traffickers’ money and the false prospect of a better life, causing all potential victims experiencing financial vulnerability to face an increased risk of trafficking and re-trafficking. For this same reason of financial insecurity, many children were pushed into trafficking by their families. Families believed that “if I send my child, I can earn more money”, and saw their children as the breadwinners of the family. One NGO member described the state of the community that they worked in: “they send their children to earn. To earn, to survive their livelihood”, as households often included eight to 12 children each, rendering it difficult to take care of them all. Because families’ financial constraints often pushed them to send their children into trafficking, interviewees recommended that starting microsavings groups would help to break the chain of re-trafficking and bonded labor. Microsavings groups are informal, community-based savings groups utilized globally as a method of fostering community resilience and financial stability. One committee member stated:
“We found that if we could organize the women, give them the opportunity to save a little money with some group members, it makes a big difference. Last year, these women received a bank loan because they were able to deposit regularly at the bank. Because a lot of these women are illiterate, it is important that we teach them how to keep accounts, how to manage the savings groups, how to authorize meetings, etc.”
Another committee member stated:
“Savings groups can be used as a prevention method for keeping women out of trafficking situations. Economic development activities like income generation in local trades help women earn money and develop economic self-sufficiency so that they will not willingly put themselves into the trafficking business.”
Core to these recommendations from respondents is the fact that financial resilience at the individual and family level is necessary to prevent someone from being re-trafficked.