Victims of the Dark
From The Hindu Online, September 29, 1996


Barely out of their teens, their garish dress and make-up cannot disguise their innocence. Trapped in a situation not of their own making, the plight of Bombay's commercial sex workers is pathetic, Meena Menon argues for a long-term strategy to rehabilitate them instead of the fire-fighting tactics now adopted.

Little has changed from the time 13-year-old Tulasa Thapa was rescued in 1984 from the infamous ``red light'' area of Bombay. Her case made international news and support poured in from all quarters to help the little girl, who was consumed by disease, two years after she was kidnapped from Kathmandu and sold to a brothel.

Last December, a 13-year-old girl ran away from her home in central Bombay after a quarrel with her parents. At a railway station, she was accosted by a woman who wanted to ``help her''. The girl was sold to a brothel owner for Rs. 5,000 and it was only after she was spotted by a family friend that police rescued her in January this year.

Two girls in their early teens who were recently sold to a brothel in Kamathipura in September, escaped and managed to reach the nearest police station and seek help. They were brought here from Darjeeling on a false pretext. The brothel keeper was arrested in this case.

While the gharwalis (brothel-keepers) hotly deny that they employ minors(those below 18), the elaborate and often garish make-up and flouncy, bright clothing cannot disguise their absurdly young faces. In a recent police raid where 12 girls were picked up, the youngest was 13 and the oldest 16.

Brothel-owners can be sentenced to between seven and fourteen years imprisonment for forcing children into prostitution under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1986. A survey conducted by the Central Social Welfare Board in six major cities in India in 1991-92 found that 29.38 per cent of the prostitutes were below twenty years.

The conditions under which the estimated over one lakh Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs) live and work in Bombay are pathetic and unhygienic. At least 20 per cent of the women are minors and are forced to live and work in cramped rooms, where the beds are divided only by flimsy curtains or in lofts where it is difficult to even stand. According to available estimates, about 50 per cent of the women are HIV positive and only over ten per cent are aware about AIDS.

Prompted by the conditions under which they live, which of course, does not deter their customers, many attempts have been made to rescue and rehabilitate these women, without much success. Since last December, Mr. G. R. Khairnar, a deputy municipal commissioner suspended for his outbursts charging the government with corruption, conducted some `raids' and rescued several women from their traumatic existence. A press report on one such raid was converted suo motu into a writ petition by a division bench of the Bombay high court in January, which ordered the State Government and the police to look into the woes of the young girls engaged in this unholy trade and rehabilitate them.

In the first week of February, the police launched massive raids in the city and rounded up 484 girls, of whom only 65 were above 18, according to Mr. Ulhas Bhoite, under-secretary, Department of Women and Child Welfare, Government of Maharashtra.. Among them was ten-year-old Shahnaz, sold to a brothel for Rs. 15,000. About 238 girls were from Nepal while the rest came from various parts of India. After the initial confusion about lodging them and attending to their needs, the question of rehabilitating them assumed grave importance. The court appointed a committee to formulate a rehabilitation programme.

Ms. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, chairperson of the Juvenile Welfare Board, said while such raids were essential, there must be a proper rehabilitation plan first. There must be hostel facilities to house the girls and they cannot be dumped just anywhere, she said. Many of the girls were housed in orphanages and institutions which had no facilities or expertise to deal with them. Some of the institutions told the court of their inability to house the girls due to various reasons.

About 140 brothel owners were arrested and cases filed against them, police sources said. However, the cases would take their own time to come up for hearing. The raids on brothels were going on though it was difficult to get information on minor girls. Remedial action on the trafficking front was also being taken. An official said that, ``Prostitution was one thing nobody wanted to talk about. Many think it is a necessary evil and it is an organised system with regular payoffs. Nobody wants to rehabilitate the girls in fact and there was a lot of hypocrisy.''

NGOs in the city were divided on this issue and some even petitioned the court to release the girls who were above 18. Chitra Subrahmanian of the Counselling and Allied Services for AIDS (CASA) said, ``We sought to have their ages re-verified but this demand was turned down. The process of the so-called rescue was traumatic in itself. The rescue was identical to their abduction. There was no attempt to pacify these girls, Instead they were put under lock and key and taught sewing! Nobody asked the girls what it was that they wanted.''

``This was a classic case of the victims being re-victimised. The girls must be given space to explore options. Rehabilitation cannot be inflicted on them.'' She criticised the lack of a concrete plan for the girls. ``It has to be a multi-pronged attack - the trafficking of girls has to be tackled first,'' she said. Many of the girls opted to go back to their native States because that was better than being holed up in homes. Also the attitude of the staff at the various homes left much to be desired. ``These girls are addicted to sex, do not work hard and are used to luxury,'' was the popular refrain. ``With this kind of insensitivity, how can the Government even contemplate rehabilitation?'' she asked.

NGOs also opposed the forced HIV testing of the girls under the pretext of a medical examination. About 80 per cent of them were HIV positive and suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and other infections, Mr. Bhoite said.

The girls were resentful and angry at this unwarranted intrusion into their lives. Instead of being picked up and released as in the past, they were detained in homes under tight security, a factor which increased their restlessness. The sudden raids meant they left behind their money and belongings and even their children, in some cases. Some of the belongings and money was recovered later with help from the police and social workers.

Anand Grover, lawyer, who represented CASA and other organisations, said, ``Under the Juvenile Justice Act there is a special procedure for rehabilitating minor girls. No procedure was followed in these raids and most of the girls were major. It was totally illegal. Also the forced HIV testing was against the State policy. The brothel-keepers and pimps are allowed to go scot-free while these girls, already exploited, are further condemned.''

The court later directed the government to send the girls back to their places of origin if they were willing and said the State department must monitor the progress of their rehabilitation. While most of the girls have been repatriated, about 68 remain, as they do not wish to return to their homes. Of these only six are of Indian origin, the rest hail from Nepal. The State Government is considering alternative rehabilitation plans for them, Mr. Bhoite added.

Early May, four girls ran away from St Catherine's Home, where nearly 160 of them were lodged in a cottage not big enough to take all of them. By then, three girls who were HIV positive, had already succumbed to tuberculosis.

In June, protests at the government protective home turned violent with the agitated girls stoning the superintendent's house. On July 2, 23 of them ran away after breaking a bathroom window. By now six girls who are HIV positive, have died and one more is in a critical condition. The court observed that the State authorities were not providing the necessary infrastructure to house or rehabilitate the girls and the voluntary organisations were also not keen on doing so.

Five months after their detention, 147 Nepali girls were sent back to their native country with NGOs there taking the responsibility of caring for their needs. The other girls were sent back to various reception centres run by the government in various States, contrary to their wishes, said social workers.

The raids and the aftermath raised a storm of debate among NGOs on the issue of rehabilitating the girls, human rights and medical ethics. Some felt the raids were not the answer to a gargantuan social problem of exploitation and appealed for the release of the girls.

Ms. Kalindi Mazumdar, a senior social worker and vice-principal of Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, said, ``This is not the way to do things. The rehabilitation process was not planned and the State was ordered to conduct these raids. After the girls were arrested, a meeting of various NGOs were called. Though the court formed a committee there were no terms of reference and we were not intimated.''

She volunteered to visit one of the centres where the girls were housed to counsel and report on them to the court. ``Initially, the girls were frustrated and angry but slowly I developed a rapport with them. Many of them were lured by false promises of jobs, some were married and later sold by their ``husbands'' - very few had actually come on their own. They were reluctant to return to their homes as they felt they would not be accepted. Their refrain was, ``Why have we been brought here? What is the crime we have committed and where were the police and the government when we were sold?''

Conditions at the government reception centre were far from ideal. ``The food was inedible and the toilets were appalling. If you want to rehabilitate anyone, basic facilities must indicate that there is a respect for the human being,'' Ms. Mazumdar said.

Instead of these firefighting tactics, she said a long-term strategy must be worked out. ``NGOs, the police and the government must play a more preventive and vigilant role in the issue. Nepal is a major centre for trafficking and its government must take some initiative. The basic economic structure has to be changed as these girls come from very poor areas. It is obvious that poverty alleviation programmes are not reaching the poor,'' she added.

A counsellor said the girls were used to a ``free atmosphere and a luxurious lifestyle where they ate meat, smoked, drank liquor and did not do much household work.'' In the home it was very difficult for them to adjust. ``The girls were totally brainwashed and could not imagine another way of life. Most of them said they were wary of going back to their homes as their parents had no idea they were in this profession. I had to make a lot of effort to counsel them and make them decide to return home. The delay in rehabilitation efforts also increased their anxiety and fears.''

Sudha Kulkarni of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, a women's organisation, said, ``Since the experiences of these women are very different, they cannot be treated on par with other destitutes. We have to first treat them as human beings and as victims of a gross exploitation and not as criminals. They have to be counselled and given a chance to think things over. This whole exercise is to satisfy the court. How can you put a stop to trafficking in women with such raids?'' she asked. ``If the raids have to be a regular feature, then where will the girls be housed? By locking them up under security, you are not rehabilitating them. Anyone would go mad in such a situation. If there was no scheme ready, then why conduct these raids? The police and the staff in government institutions have to be specially trained and sensitised to handle the girls.''

Ms. Preeti Patkar of Prerna, an NGO which runs a creche for children of CSWs in Kamathipura, said, ``The raids managed to create a fear among the brothel-keepers who are now wary of keeping minors. Everyone speaks of effective law implementation and police commitment but what are you going to do to ensure that the girls do not leave home? We are clearly against child prostitution but for the older women though they live in an exploitative society, there is a sense of acceptance which the outside world cannot give. We say help those who are willing to be helped.''

Ms. Chitkala Zutshi, secretary of the women and child welfare department of the Maharashtra government said, ``As far as minor girls are concerned, police raids must form part of the strategy. Other plans include spreading awareness in the areas where the girls hail from and sensitising the clients, many of whom are very young. One aspect of this exercise which is ignored is the tremendous difference that came about in the health of the women after a few months.''

She said it was difficult to stop trafficking but word has spread that raids would continue and the message was very clear. Though long-term follow up of the rescued girls was ideal, it was not possible to monitor on a case by case basis, she said. Rescuing and rehabilitating the minors will definitely make a difference, she added.

The department is proposing to revise diet scales, upgrade existing homes, build new ones with vocational training facilities and launch an awareness campaign in the media, she added. Schemes for income generation have also been started to train the girls to earn their living.

MEENA MENON


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