Khadija Khatun, a member of Bijoyini survivor’s collective and a survivor leader at the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT), was 15 years old when she was trafficked to Bihar by a friend. For many years, she experienced both mental and physical torture at the hands of her traffickers. Today, 11 years later, she remembers that time as the most difficult phase in her life when she battled both physical and mental trauma.
After competing rehabilitation, she joined Bijoyini in Hasnabad in North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, and started working as a volunteer, helping plan awareness campaigns against issues such as child marriage, domestic violence, and human trafficking.
She says her journey from a survivor of trafficking to survivor leader was full of challenges, but she wanted to move on. Today, Khatun, who is five months pregnant, works with young girls in the community, motivating them through positive dialogue so that they can learn from her experience. In the future, she plans to build a house for her child.
Dipti, a member of Alorpath survivor’s collective and survivor leader at ILFAT, was trafficked from West Bengal to Bihar to work as a dancer in an orchestra when she was 14 years old by a woman known to her family. Recalling her experience, Dipti says that being a part of the dance group meant wearing short clothes, which made her uncomfortable, and being forced to drink. Her traffickers used to feed her pills on the pretext of boosting immunity since she suffered from headaches, but she was being given intoxicants.
Recounting her journey from being a survivor of trafficking to becoming a survivor leader, Dipti says it is important for survivors to receive support because without help from the right quarters, a survivor will blame herself for what she went through.
ILFAT was launched in 2018 with the vision of a nation free from all forms of trafficking. Initially started by two survivor leader collectives in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh who decided to form a national forum with survivors from other states, ILFAT today has 12 survivor collectives spread across eight states, with over 4,500 survivor leaders.
Over the years, organisations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), along with activists, academics, NGOs working in the anti-trafficking space, and human trafficking survivors have been demanding the incorporation of those with lived experiences to participate in counter-trafficking efforts and to partner with governments.
ILFAT is the Indian version of the worldwide survivors’ collective movement which demands the inclusion of people with lived experiences of trafficking in the fight against trafficking.
Minh Dang, executive director, Survivor Alliance, an international NGO that works with survivors across the world, who is also on the advisory council for ILFAT, says survivors’ collectives across India are different as they have an equal power structure as compared to the movement in the USA, which is more individualistic in nature.
Piu Mondal, a member of Bandhan Mukti and a survivor leader from ILFAT, has been vocal about seeking mental health support for survivors of trafficking in India. She says the extraction of an individual from a situation of exploitation is the first step to freedom, but the real challenge lies in rehabilitation and reintegration in society, which is a long-drawn-out process.
For Mondal, the majority of the survivors blame themselves for their situation and have mental health issues, which are not addressed at shelter homes since rehabilitation is a tedious process that does not happen overnight. Mondal says that most survivors face problems during rehabilitation as the stigma is very real and survivors often face abuse, which might hamper the integration process. In many instances, they start stealing from home to fuel the drug or alcohol addiction they caught after being trafficked and when it is hindered, they even try to die by suicide.
Across the world, trafficking continues to be a crime that has less success in prosecution owing to slow identification of cases. In India, men, women, and children of all ages become victims of trafficking. In most cases, the traffickers use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education, jobs, and marriage to trick and coerce the victims into situations of exploitation.
There were 2,189 cases of human trafficking in 2021 as compared to 1,714 cases reported in 2020. In most cases, survivors are either not identified by the authorities or do not want to be identified as ‘trafficked’ victims because they fear stigma and need work to survive and not temporary assistance in a shelter. ILFAT helps survivors connect with self-help groups, provides mental health support, computer training, helps in registration of cases and fights for victim compensation. They have also been a part of the Trafficking in Persons Bill, demanding a comprehensive victim-centred legislative approach to counter human trafficking.
Comparing the trajectory of survivor collectives across the world, Dang says many more groups advocating for the rights of survivors of trafficking have emerged in the past 10-15 years. She adds that there is a need to support survivors as they have a lot more to share apart from their experience.
Survivor leaders of ILFAT agree. They say they want to break the narrative of trafficking survivors as helpless people with no agency. Mijhana Sheikh, a member of Bandhan Mukti and survivor leader at ILFAT, is a living embodiment of this philosophy. A first-year student of BA, Sheikh was trafficked at a young age but decided to pursue her education. Today, she works against child labour, child marriage, and with school dropouts, and she does all this while attending classes and looking after her three-year-old daughter.
Kashmira Laskar, a member of Bandhan Mukti and survivor leader at ILFAT, has started her grocery store and took a small loan from a local self-help group to buy a fridge for her shop. Bilkij is a member of Bandhan Mukti and a survivor leader at ILFAT, who works with youth groups in her community on issues like child marriage, domestic violence, and trafficking.
All these women say they feel empowered through their work in the community and have stopped many girls from being trafficked. In their view, it is important for survivors to learn from one another and build strong peer support networks. They also believe that society needs to focus on survivors’ resilience and refrain from using narratives that make them appear as helpless victims without agency.
The discourse on trafficking has created a rift in the community between the abolitionists and those who support sex work. There is also a difference in how organisations and advocates feel the battle against human trafficking must be fought.
Hasina Kharbhih, founder, Impulse NGO Network, who has been working in the anti-trafficking space for more than three decades, says there is a record of people with similar experiences forming coalitions to create a support network to raise concerns regarding the issues that trouble them. But, in some instances, the survivors’ network also causes problems, especially stigmatisation, and the survivors end up getting isolated because people are not ready to accept them back into society.
In such a scenario, Kharbhih says while it is important for survivors’ networks to be heard, that cannot be the only way forward and must include other agencies like the government, law enforcement, non-governmental organisations, prosecutors, and independent experts to ensure that integration is carried out in a wholesome manner.
Anupama Mondal, 21, a member at Bandhan Mukti and an ILFAT leader, believes survivor leaders must keep providing support to others like them so that they may reclaim and restart their lives. She remembers the humiliation she faced in society after being rescued, which prevented her from joining school and affected her mental health. But she received support from Bandhan Mukti, whose members spoke to her teachers, and she was able to resume her studies. A student of Class IX, Anupama balances her career and runs her own grocery store, while also working in the community.
Mondal says survivor leaders must work together on their problems otherwise they will not be addressed. She says they need unity because only if they come together will others respond to them.
Deepa, 24, a member at Bandhan Mukti and leader at ILFAT, has been working as a survivor leader for the last eight years. A high school pass out, Deepa says survivors of trafficking are normal people who have experienced exploitation and can help other survivors. Speaking about her journey from a survivor of trafficking to a survivor leader, Deepa says she was initially dead against joining a survivors’ collective, but slowly warmed up to the idea. She said it dawned upon her that she was not the only victim of trafficking and there were many women like her who were vulnerable and hurting and need help from people who have experienced similar trauma.
Veerendra Mishra, an Indian Police Service officer, and founding member of Samvedna, which works to combat caste-based commercial sexual exploitation and human sex trafficking, says: “Trafficking is a complex issue that needs a nuanced understanding among stakeholders.” About the need for embracing survivor identity, Mishra says there are two aspects of how the survivor identity can be used.
In the first case, the victims who have experienced exploitation can come out in the open and talk about their experiences while, in the other scenario, survivors decide to hide their identity. Mishra says that in both cases, a survivor of trafficking must receive support and calls for joint and transparent efforts in advocacy to curb trafficking.
Dang echoes Mishra’s sentiments. She believes the onus for making the decision to go public or not must rest on the survivor. A survivor of trafficking herself, Dang says: “Those who can afford to go public with their accounts must take this path, but others who want to be a part of this narrative without coming out must be provided a safe space to continue their work without being outed.”
Sona Singh is a Phd in international relations. She writes on modern slavery, migration and gender
(This appeared in the print as 'A Safe Space')