MUMBAI, INDIA — Reports of forced labor at a shelter for abused women run by a charity in India sparked fresh fears on Monday that the country’s long-awaited anti-trafficking bill could lead to consenting sex workers being locked up and treated like victims.
The Lower House of the Indian Parliament cleared the anti-trafficking bill in July this year and it is expected to be tabled in the Upper House in December.
India’s women’s minister has said it aims to unify existing anti-trafficking laws, prioritize survivors’ needs and prevent victims such as those found in brothel raids from being arrested and jailed like traffickers.
But sex workers’ organizations say it does not distinguish between victims of trafficking and women doing sex work out of choice, and could lead to the latter being held in shelters.
“There is a concern among sex workers’ rights movements about adult consenting sex workers being incarcerated in protection homes,” said Aarti Pai of the India-based National Network of Sexworkers.
Prajwala houses 600 women in its shelter in Hyderabad. Joshua Caroll, based in Myanmar, and who works for The Guardian, was in the city for six weeks and met seven survivors from Prajwala and reported on the conditions at the home.
Caroll reported that the seven women he interviewed told him that they were ill-treated, exploited and felt caged. The women preferred staying at a prison over the home.
Caroll reported that his request to visit shelter was rejected by Sunita Krishnan who runs the shelter.
One of the survivors as saying: “I was pulled out from a sex work by Hyderabad police and housed at Prajwala. For about a year, I was made to sew and clean bathrooms for money that I never received. It would have been better to be in a prison, at least you can meet with your family there.”
Another survivor described the atmosphere inside Prajwala as being one of fear and despair. Those who rebelled against their detention were beaten, she alleged. The inmates have no contact with the outside world. There are several instances of inmate self-harming and suicide attempts at the shelter, according to the women.
A 26-year-old Uzbek national, who was rescued from the flesh trade and lodged at the Prajwala home in Ranga Reddy district for rehabilitation allegedly committed suicide in April this year.
Women who had stayed at the home said that they were forced to work under the “life skills” program, which Prajawala describes as part of its “rescue and rehabilitation”strategy. The women said if they resisted, the police would be called and they received a severe beating, a woman said.
Another woman who stayed at the home two years ago said she had beaten up and her belongings confiscated. “They hit my head with a stick,” she recalled.
Of the seven former residents, five said they witnessed staff beating other detainees or were subjected to violence themselves.
Asked about the report, Krishnan alleged that the seven witnesses were paid off.
“I met this journalist at an awards function and he asked me about my grants. I know he was commissioned to damage my identity. I wrote about this on my blog,” Krishnan said. “He spoke to seven survivors and has named none. What about the 20,000 girls I have rescued?”
She said the entire story is judged on the experience of the seven residents. “He has not visited my shelter but sent me a mail asking four questions, like ‘Do you beat up inmates’. How do I answer such questions,” Krishnan said,
She said she “knew the lobby backing him (Mr Caroll).”
“These are girls were sent to my home by the court, and I am responsible till they stay there. If the survivors were mistreated, they would have told the court and not a journalist,” she said.