Shakti Vahini, a nonprofit based in New Delhi, has helped protect thousands of children from exploitation and human trafficking risks.
“Every year, 35,000 to 45,000 Indian children vanish”, describes Rishi Kant, “and while some are recovered and returned to their families, many are never found.” Rishi’s numbers represent the crimes of slavery, kidnapping, and trafficking, tragic human rights violations that plague parts of India. “It is a matter of serious concern for any country where thousands of children continue to report missing for years,” Rishi says.
Rishi and his brothers, Nishi Kant and Ravi Kant, came together in 2001 to found Shakti Vahini, a New Delhi-based organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking in India. Rishi directs the organization’s projects and programs in eastern India, as well as media and communications, while Nishi oversees operations and Ravi handles policy and legal issues as Shakti Vahini’s president.
“Human lives are not a commodity which can be sold and purchased,” says Ravi, describing his family’s motivation to combat the societal scourge of human trafficking. “It is a grave violation of human and fundamental rights. A victim of trafficking is exploited and abused for years with no access to justice, and the exploiters continue to evade prosecution.”
Law enforcement responses to human trafficking in India are historically ineffective, Ravi describes, as prosecutors look only at isolated incidents rather than attempting to dismantle the far-flung criminal networks that make child exploitation possible. “For this, all stakeholders need to work together, which seldom happens,” he says. “Hence, the crime continues to grow.”
To help counter the problem, Shakti Vahini works with law enforcement agencies and government entities like the Anti-Human Trafficking Units to support investigations. The organization has helped recover over 6,000 kidnapping victims since 2004, and supports the prosecution of every case in which they are involved. Shakti Vahini also helps train law enforcement and child protection personnel on matters including rescues and case monitoring.
“Traffickers continue to strengthen their networks by money power, corruption and crime syndicates,” says Rishi. “It is an organized crime and money-spinning business. To fight organized crime with diverse stakeholders, we need to come together and get organized.”
To accomplish this, Shakti Vahini has hosted a series of conclaves over the last decade, in which law enforcement representatives, prosecution officials, government agencies, youth organizations, students, and others come together to discuss strategies.
The conclaves focus heavily on ways to strengthen laws that punish and prevent crimes of human trafficking, and have “ensured the political will to combat the crime, which has resulted in action plans and increased budgeting,” says Ravi.
Positive results include the creation of draft placement agency legislation in Jharkhand, protective policies for migrant workers in Bihar, and an action plan against child exploitation in West Bengal. The conclaves have also resulted in the founding of over 50 anti-human trafficking clubs in universities across eastern and northern India, places where future generations of activists meet, learn, and organize.
To help make their efforts as effective as possible, Ravi and Rishi participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), a training initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. “As part of the IVLP, I learned about various legal and law enforcement intervention initiatives to combat human trafficking in the United States,” says Ravi, who also describes learning how institutions can reimagine themselves to prevent and prosecute crimes of slavery. “The skills and knowledge gained has helped me to design anti-trafficking initiatives in India.”
Rishi echoes his brother’s sentiments, adding that the IVLP helped him understand the trafficking problems facing India from a holistic perspective. “I also learned community prevention mechanisms to stop human trafficking, and law enforcement strategies to investigate and prosecute these crimes,” he says.
As the worst of the pandemic hopefully recedes, Shakti Vahini is focusing its efforts on strengthening communities, so criminals cannot take advantage of vulnerable situations created by natural and public health disasters. The Kant brothers continue to consult with law enforcement agencies to make them more effective at battling criminal networks, and have started a helpline intended to disrupt cases of human trafficking enabled by Internet technology; “There has been an increase in recruitment of victims through social media post-Covid,” explains Rishi.
Meanwhile, Shakti Vahini continues to work with India’s national government to craft and pass comprehensive legislation designed to thwart human trafficking across the country.
Though the Kant brothers are proud of their organization’s progress, much work remains. “In spite of a very strong civil society response, the problem persists,” Ravi says. “Due to interventions done by us, there has been a dip in trafficking in some areas of the country. We will continue to mount a nationwide united response to combat this crime.”
“One thing is sure, and that is that perpetrators of this inhuman trade and exploitation need to face the law,” he continues. “We will bring in fear of the law against these criminals.”
For more information on Shakti Vahini’s vital work, visit shaktivahini.org. To find out how you can participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, visit eca.state.gov/ivlp.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.