“Women in my village are being abused physically,” says Rahima Khan, a human trafficking survivor and an active member of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT).
Offering a glimpse into the atrocities committed against women, she tells us, “Traffickers are coming inside the homes and scaring the women, telling them that if they step out of their homes, acid will be thrown on them, and their houses will be burnt down. Harassment has increased since the lockdown began.”
Sadly, this is the reality of a large number of women in the country. Confined indoors during the lockdown, women and children have particularly become vulnerable to increased incidents of domestic violence and other heinous crimes carried out by the organised networks of human trafficking. The official statistics reveal the prevalence of such incidents.
In Tamil Nadu alone, as many as 5,740 complaints of domestic violence have been received since the lockdown was announced on March 24, according to the data released by the police. Of these 5,740 complaints, reports indicate that 5,702 complaints were settled, 38 cases were registered, and subsequently arrests were made.
Domestic violence has been deemed a shadow pandemic by the UN. As more and more cases of the global contagion pile up, people across the world are forced to seek shelter at home, which unfortunately has brought to light the underlying dangers of violence and abuse. While women and those not in a position of power are the obvious targets, there is however another section of the society for whom the lockdown has unleashed untold horrors – the victims of human trafficking.
Already pushed to the fringes, these are the people who have to fight the barrage of threats from abusers, traffickers, and crime syndicates while coping with the various economic challenges unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. Loss of jobs, lack of income, difficulty in procuring food and other essentials, and a growing sense of fear and uncertainly have become the order of the day.
To understand the situation better and to get a first-hand account of the ground reality, MAKERS India spoke with four survivors of human trafficking from three different states of India. Their revelations are as much eye-opening as they are heartbreaking.
Forced labour and exploitation
A sudden halt in the regular cash flow seems to be a common challenge faced by almost every marginalised family during these unprecedented times. Especially for daily wagers and those whose work is contractual in nature, the unforeseen lockdown and the consequent shutdown of factories, workshops, industries, and construction sites has translated into months of anxiety now, forcing them to go without pay and without any hope of stability in the near future.
“Most of these victims are suffering from pressures related to local debt and lenders coming to collect their money and interest. They are facing great difficulty in repaying loans as there is no cash flow,” says Janaki, the secretary of Erode District Women’s Federation and a labour trafficking victim herself.
The 25-year-old, who was once forced into backbreaking work at a mill when she was a teenager, has first-hand knowledge of what exploitation at the factories and especially in the textile industry means. And her biggest fear is that forced labour and trafficking of young girls to make them work in factories could further increase during the ongoing crisis.
“What I have observed in the past is that management from the textile industry would come into the villages and recruit girls who were above the age of 16 offering them accommodation in hostels and work in factories. They would tell the families that these girls will be given a good amount of money for the work they do and that can be used for their marriage. However, once the girls got there, there were no facilities and working conditions were poor,” says Janaki.
She adds, “There are increased chances that the same practice will continue as the conditions are dire, and people need money.”
Janaki, who is among the survivors instrumental in the formation of ILFAT, is fighting to put an end to this evil. She says, with the support of Erode District Women’s Federation, she and her team have identified the vulnerable demographics and supported people with groceries and relief material to ensure financial stability during these troubled times.
No medical supplies
The lockdown has had a direct impact on the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in India. The real consequence of the lockdown can be seen when there is a medical or a health-related crisis at home. With access to big cities and options for travelling reduced or almost absent, it has become particularly difficult for rural population and marginalised sections to access hospitals or afford treatment during this period. A reality that Andhra Pradesh native Hasseena (name changed, on request) is well-aware of.
She says, “My husband was a mazdur (labourer) and my brother was an auto driver. However, they do not have work anymore. My family is surviving on the money which has been given to me by Vimukthi, the NGO I work with.”
Her troubles have been further amplified by the current health crisis at her home. “My brother is unwell. His treatment costs us Rs 15,000 a month which we cannot afford. Additionally, we cannot go to the city to get his medicines because of the lockdown and because we do not have money for gas,” she tells us.
Hasseena’s domestic crisis and the anguish she is suffering due to a financial crunch brought upon by the pandemic is echoed by West Bengal’s Firoja (name changed). She says that the lockdown has cost her family its income and livelihood.
“Money is a big problem,” Firoja says. “Additionally, the lack of access to food is a big issue. People in my village who have children are wondering what to feed them. People are coming to me asking for help, but I am unable to do anything.”
Women – the biggest victims
But above everything else, all the four trafficking survivors who opened up to us agree that the lockdown has cost women their independence, their mental peace and their emotional stability the most.
These four women who are instrumental today in advocating the cause of trafficking survivors and providing them a safe transition into the society once again through their NGOs and their collaboration on ILFAT – a platform representing over 3,000 survivors from 10 Indian states – insist that the lockdown has deprived them of their ability to do any relief work.
“We are keeping in touch via the phone and helping each other stay motivated. However, it is hard because we are unable to meet in person,” says Firoja.
Even as the survivor collectives, with help from local administration, police, and NGOs, strive to fund and support the human trafficking survivors and their families with funds, food, and medical supplies, the fear of recurrent harassment and continued threats from traffickers still remain.
The truth is Coronavirus is not the cause. The pandemic has only brought to light the already existing evils.
(Edited by Javed Gaihlot)