Survivors learn English and share their stories to raise awareness at the grassroots level to fight human trafficking.
The trafficking survivors worked on building strength and conviction in themselves to work together and make sure women and girls do not go through what they have endured. (Photograph courtesy ILFAT)
Human trafficking—the recruitment and exploitation of people by force, fraud and deception for profit—is considered one of the most virulent problems in the world. In 2019, the Indian government reported 2,088 trafficking cases under the Indian Penal Code through its National Crime and Records Bureau report.
The India Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT) works as India’s first national forum against trafficking. Founded by and for survivors who have been trafficked for labor and/or sex, it is the first ever survivor-led forum in India. With more than 4,000 survivors as members, ILFAT is a federation of 13 survivor collectives in nine states—West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
In anticipation of Human Trafficking and Prevention month in January 2023, ILFAT partnered with the U.S. Embassy New Delhi’s Regional English Language Office (RELO) to provide intensive English language training to human trafficking survivors.
Learning English has played a role in allowing survivors to reclaim their dignity and self-confidence. It has empowered survivors to use their voices to spread awareness about trafficking and fight the stigma that survivors encounter in their families and communities upon rescue. Survivors explained that the training allowed them to advocate with Members of Parliament on a pending anti-trafficking bill in English, participating in meetings with MPs from around the country.
Khushi from West Bengal (name changed on request) came from a stable family where she lived with her parents, three siblings and grandparents. She had completed Class 9 when she met a boy who said he dreamed of traveling as much as she did. “After some time, we traveled outside of West Bengal and he cut me off from my family,” Khushi says. “I was not allowed to contact them and was kept in one, small room. It was then that I realized that I had been trafficked,” she explains. Khushi was held in captivity for two months.
A common theme amongst trafficking survivors is abuse—mental, physical, sexual, emotional or financial. In Khushi’s case, she suffered both mental and physical abuse until her rescue.
Another common trend that deeply affects trafficking survivors is the trauma on returning home. They can be met with disdain and become victims of cultural stigma and social ostracism that leave them deeply shamed and banished from most areas of livelihood. Khushi, too, was ostracized–no school would accept her, nor would the authorities listen to her story.
Like Khushi, Tithi (name changed on request) from West Bengal was trafficked by an acquaintance, at the age of 17. A boy, who was a friend of the family, offered her work at a call center as she was looking for employment to support her family. When she went to fill out the hiring paperwork and was offered a coffee, she lost consciousness and woke up only to realize she had been trafficked to Ahmedabad.
Over five months of captivity, Tithi was trafficked to multiple places, including Mumbai, Hyderabad and back to West Bengal. She was administered multiple injections of sedative drugs and “was consistently physically tortured and mentally abused by the traffickers and their customers.”
Tithi met with the same challenges as Khushi upon her rescue by the police. Her community looked down upon her and refused to accept her. “After receiving so much shame and rejection, I suffered deeply with depression,” she says.
Family feuds and local enmities can also put women at the risk of reprisal. This was the case with Anita (name changed on request) from West Bengal, who was trafficked when she was 16 years old. “My father was a moneylender and fish trader,” she says. “He died when I was 16 years old so I started to look for work as my family’s financial condition deteriorated.”
Anita says her father “was a well-respected man in the community with strong political connections and ties to the police.” The villagers were envious of his success and social standing. Anita was kidnapped and trafficked by a local businessman’s son who was jealous of her father.
Anita says she was held captive for only around one week. “The traffickers were planning on selling me along with three other girls in the house. Because of my father’s position in the village, it became difficult to sell me without being caught,” she says. She was later rescued by the police, who were able to trace her location.
Turning over a new leaf
After going through traumatic experiences, these women worked on building strength and conviction in themselves to work together and make sure women and girls do not go through what they have endured. Khushi is working with ILFAT to spread awareness about human trafficking. The English training from RELO helped Khushi “speak up at survivor alliance meetings, respond to emails and work to end human trafficking in our nation.”
Tithi is now married and sells homemade floor cleaners. She is also associated with ILFAT and Bijoyini, a collective of human trafficking survivors. “Young people need to learn about trafficking and the effects of societal pressure to earn money at a young age. It is because of this that trafficking has increased,” says Tithi. “I will fight to end human trafficking at all levels for the rest of my life.”
Khushi, Tithi and Anita believe that there is an urgent need to create awareness about human trafficking in India. Anita, based on her own experience, understands that “young girls end up trusting the wrong people who are only interested in profiting off their labor and bodies.” She emphasizes that the government needs to create stricter laws against human trafficking and work to stop it happening to anyone.
Over the last few years, the Indian government has also increased its engagement and investment in resources to raise trafficking awareness and reporting across the country. From child helpline desks at railway stations to conducting awareness campaigns on trafficking and legal rights of vulnerable communities, government bodies depend on local leaders and nonprofit organizations to cover the last mile and assist with effective implementation of protective policies. The involvement of empowered survivors, like Khushi, Tithi and Anita, is crucial to coordinate and connect with local communities and decrease the risk of trafficking.
Megan McDrew is a professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Hartnell College. She is based in Monterey, California.