How many among the missing 45,000 get a life?

45,000 children go missing every year in India, most of them trafficked. While each State is equipped by law with rescue homes and rehabilitation programs, the path is strewn with hurdles at every step. A look at why the glimmer of hope with rescue efforts is only faint.

The story would seem like a thrilling chase scene straight out of an action flick if it weren’t the depressing reflection of a dark reality. 

Karishma from Miraj, Maharastra, is taken out of school by her grandmother at the age of 11 and sold to a brothel keeper for sex. The police get on the heels of this racket; the traffickers move her from Miraj to Kolhapur.
Freedom Firm, an NGO working against human trafficking, locates her, but by the time the police mobilizes a rescue team, she is moved to another location. It takes over six months to trace her. She gets rescued finally and placed at a Freedom Firm shelter home.

Karishma testifies against the brothel keeper boldly in court, but a bribe ensures that the convict is acquitted. The NGO issues an appeal (which is still pending in the Bombay High Court), but in the meantime, she gets moved to a government rescue home, which in the manner of all government homes, is vastly inadequate. She goes through a harrowing experience, gets transferred multiple times to various homes, each one worse than the other.

This is usually where the trail gets cold, the judicial system languishes, the child becomes a statistic, and everybody goes back to their lives. Karishma, however had a promising twist to her tale, thanks to a decent rescue and rehabilitation home run by Freedom Firm.

So to continue, realising the obvious – that government rescue homes do not help – the Child Welfare Committee in Mumbai, after one and a half years, handed over Karishma to the Freedom Firm rescue home.

“Our home was patient and loving towards her, gave her employment, education and equipped her with independence,” explains Rodney Green of Freedom Firm. “She had anger problems and violent outbursts, but showed improvement.”

Karishma graduated from the NGO’s 18-month aftercare program when she was 18. She now lives in Pune and works for a microfinance organisation.

Explaining how special her case was, Green said that she was allowed to be a part of Freedom Firm shelter as a minor. “Most girls are allowed to our shelter homes only after 18, either for employment or an educational opportunity. She was an exception.”

Freedom Firm’s rescue home at Ooty in Tamil Nadu offers an aftercare program to the victims of trafficking that includes individual counselling as well as Horse Therapy, a healing combination that nurtures and challenges victims to realise self-worth and build self-confidence.

Upon graduation from the program, victims can opt for further studies and/or become employees in Freedom Firm’s micro-enterprise jewellery business. The rescue and rehabilitation efforts that helped Karishma win back a life are however a rarity.

So what happens after someone is rescued?
All states by law have SWADHAR homes for victims of human trafficking, supported by the respective state governments and NGOs in the state.

These transit or rehabilitation homes offer trauma and HIV counselling sessions to victims and vocational training to empower them. For instance, the civic rehabilitation program by Prajwala Foundation in Hyderabad provides housing, ration cards and electoral cards to survivors of sex trafficking and ensures a civic identity for them in society. 400 survivors have been provided housing under the housing scheme in Andhra Pradesh until 2011.

Psychological rehabilitation includes life-skills, literacy, social skills, grooming, personality development, and intensive trauma care. Tailoring, masonry, wielding, driving, working in small scale industries and being a part of self-help groups are jobs survivors typically take up after their training.

How much of a success story is this in a country that has 3 million people in the flesh trade, 40% of them being children?

Rescue and rehabilitation is uneven
According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), Indian law enforcement and immigration officials continue to lack formal procedures for proactively identifying victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, such as children at work sites, females in prostitution, or members from disadvantaged groups in rural industries.

Post rescue, the disbursement of rehabilitation funds has also been inconsistent. Under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, each government-recognized victim of bonded labour is entitled to Rs.20,000 from the state and central government. One NGO cited that in a Tamil Nadu case, 10 labourers received their rehabilitation packages within two and a half months (in advance of the six months processing time allowed by the law), but also noted that bonded labourers released in Andhra Pradesh had not received any rehabilitation funds since 2007, despite 150 packages pending.

However, the report made a startling revelation that some rescued sex trafficking victims in Andhra Pradesh died while waiting over three years to get rehabilitation funds.

Government rehabilitation homes are badly run
In 2011, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) funded 331 Swadhar projects and 73 rehabilitation centres in 16 states under the Ujjawala program that seeks to protect and rehabilitate female trafficking victims, apart from 238 women’s help lines.
The UNHRC report however comments on government shelter homes as often running beyond capacity, being unhygienic, offering poor food, and providing limited, if at all, psychiatric and medical services, although NGOs provide some of those services. Some have been placed at protection homes against their will. Some shelters do not even permit child victims to leave the shelters – including for school – to prevent their re-trafficking.

Rescues are unpredictable
Freedom Firm has conducted over 207 rescue operations in Maharashtra and has got nine of them convicted in Pune. “In a span of six years, there has been a significant decrease in the number of trafficked victims between the ages of 11 to 14,” says Green.

Meanwhile, Mahesh Bhagwat, joint C.P. administration at Hyderabad City Police who has been instrumental in carrying out a series of rescue operations in Andhra Pradesh, says that only 25 to 30% of rescued victims are reintegrated into society. “The rest get back to flesh trade business, accepting it as their way of life.”

Horse and Rider – A film by Freedom Firm on 2 survivors of child trafficking.

According to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)

– From among the 45,000 children who go missing every year, nearly 1,100 remain untraced.
– Out of the total rescued children in the country, 15 to 25% percent return to trafficking.
– Andhra Pradesh is one among five States with the dubious distinction of having the highest rate children trafficking because it is such a lucrative business.

Shafi R Khan, a social activist working with EMPOWER PEOPLE, an NGO working on gender and child issues, said, there is no particular trend in rescues. “They are unpredictable. There can be resistance from localities which can give enough time for traffickers to shift to another place or it could go as planned.”

“Each rescue effort is unique and unpredictable. Sometimes raids are unsuccessful (the girl is moved, or there is a tip off), and sometimes, we end up rescuing more girls than expected,” says Green.

Reintegration is difficult
While rehabilitation gives time for survivors to forget their sordid tales and engage in self-motivation and earning, reintegration gives them back those jitters.

According to Sunitha Krishnan, one of the founders of Prajawala Foundation, families of survivors are unwilling to accept them back fearing societal pressure and many survivors choose to stay back at rescue homes and take up training programs to make a living.

Some of the survivors at Prajwala were married off with the help of women and child welfare department while some reunited with their families and others were content by making a living through their job.

Externally, Karishma has become a part of the society now. But, she still struggles to trust people. “We hope she will improve and her wounds will heal with time,” concludes Green.
Reintegration is indeed the toughest step in the rescue and rehabilitation process. But, there is still some hope in it.

Helpline number to report a human trafficking case:

(011) 23317004 or Jagori on (011) 26692700

Organisations working on child rights and against human trafficking:

Empower People: [email protected]
CARPED: Contact: [email protected]
Centre for Social Research, India: Contact: [email protected]
Freedom Firm: [email protected]

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