In July last year, the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, was passed in Lok Sabha amid vocal protests by stakeholders including sex workers and activists. One of the most problematic aspects of the Bill is that it provides for rescue and forced rehabilitation of a trafficked victims even if they do not want to be rehabilitated.
Lawyers, activists, transpersons and sex workers have since been agitating for a review of the Bill. The latter especially, since the Bill fails to differentiate between victims of human trafficking and those who earn their living as sex workers by choice.
Summing up the problem, Borislav Gerasimov, Communications and Advocacy officer working with Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, said that that the problem with anti-trafficking activists and practitioners do not understand the meaning of consent.
"Anti-trafficking activists need to be like Daenerys Targaryen. Only rescue people when they WANT to be rescued, not every person that YOU think needs rescuing," Gerasimov said at a conference held in Delhi on Friday.The two-day event called 'Disrupting Traffick' was hosted by the University of Chicago and attended by several experts, as well as stake holders including transwomen, sex workers, human rights lawyers and activists.
Explaining the pop culture reference, Gerasimov spoke of the the third season of Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen's campaign to liberate Slaver's Bay. He mentioned a scene where one of the former slaves comes back to Daenerys after being liberated and seeks to be bonded to his former master via a contract of servitude once again.
Despite being deeply against slavery and servitude, Daenerys agrees to let the former slave sign a fresh contract with his former master so that his life could be restored to its old equilibrium. "That is the attitude we need to keep with victims of trafficking, real or otherwise. Any kind of rescuee needs to give consent for the 'rescue'," Gerasimov said, adding, "otherwise it's a human rights violation".
He also argued that though the criminal justice system was meant to give equal access to laws and protection to all, it ended up siding with the privileged. "Sadly, anti-trafficking laws in most countries seem to follow a profiling bias wherein certain people are seen to be more likely traffickers," Gerasimov said. "In the case of India and many other South Asian states, the brunt is borne by sex workers".
Talking about the The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, that is still in effect in India and the only law dedicated to preventing human trafficking, Gerasimov, who is also an editor at Anti-Trafficking Review, said that it was restrictive in its definition and understanding of trafficking, limiting it only to forced sex work.
To prevent this, sex workers argue in favour of legislation decriminalising and normalising sex work to reduce the stigma attached to those working in the industry.
"It is indeed laudable that the government is taking measures to help victims of trafficking," said Devi, member of Nation Sex Workers Network. "However, research suggests that forced rescue and rehabilitation models do not actually help reduce numbers. Instead they end up targeting sex workers and forcefully rehabilitating them".
Devi argued that the while it was easy for people to believe that people can travel far and wide for their job. But when a sex worker finds a job away from her village, people immediately suspect her of being trafficked. Many of the sex workers present at the conference agreed that for the most part, trafficking and sex-work went hand in hand in people's minds.
"I am a sex worker by choice, I use the money to raise my family and they are the better for it. Why can't I be seen as ambitious too?" Devi asked. "Many of us travel to big cities the same was as people in other professions do - in search of better opportunities".
However, as per the 2018 Bill, when these women are found in a raid, authorities are to assume they are "victims" of trafficking and sent for rehabilitation. Spokespersons from various organisations of sex workers stressed that decriminalising sex work was the first step to changing the legal attitude toward trafficking.
"Once we decriminalise sex work, these women would not only have protection from exploitative and discriminatory laws but can also greatly aid in the prevention of trafficking," Tripti Tandon of Lawyers Collective said. She added that current anti-trafficking legislation needed to be reviewed and updated with focus on the underlying reasons that cause and perpetuate trafficking rather than focusing solely on perpetrators and punitive measures. "We need to come up with creative ways to deal with this problem. People are now interested in laws and acts that protect their rights, instead of outright banning or prohibiting certain behaviour," Tandon said.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau, about 20,000 women were trafficked in India in 2016. From 2014 - 17, a majority of adult woman trafficking cases were booked under IPC sections 376 (3248) instead of ITPA (684).