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Recent Graduate: My Experience of Working Against Human Trafficking in India

In this new blog post series, we will be hearing from recent graduates about their experiences in entry-level development roles. In this first post, recent SOAS graduate Pankhuri Agarwal writes about her experience of working in India against human trafficking.

Working against human trafficking is demanding and the experiences are often emotionally draining. It exposes you to the rigours of development at the most challenging and intellectual levels, to many true, ugly and unbiased development lessons, and more importantly, it teaches you to be courageous and hopeful.

I started working against human trafficking and related issues five years ago in India, when I came across a book by Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More, that instilled in me the curiosity to visit Delhi’s red light district, Garstin Bastion Road (G.B. Road). G.B. Road houses around 92 brothels with nearly 3500-4000 inhabitants, mostly trafficked into prostitution. As the evening shadowed in, I could see women and children peeping down from the windows, men leering at them from the street below, and seemingly oblivious children playing around them. I stood in shame that day, for I was a part of a society that, instead of being the answer to the injustice they were subjected to in the form of unfair living conditions and societal stigma, questioned and disrespected the existence of women and children living on G.B. Road. This first visit taught me one very important lesson –merely feeling dejected or questioning the system is not going to do any good, taking action will.

Image: Children from G.B. Road during life skills sessions. The poster reads  'We should believe in ourselves.'

I began to work full-time with various organisations on analysis of legal frameworks, formulation of direct policy interventions, designing development aid provisions, enabling victim assistance services including rehabilitation, on issues such as human trafficking, child labour, bonded labour and sexual abuse at various levels of governance. As time passed by, I noticed how the many trafficked men, women and children are often ostracised from communities, and by not integrating them within the community, we, as a society are not only taking away their freedom (which is their birth right), but also losing out on the societal progress that their better standard of living would enable.

Despite the increased efforts to ensure justice for all through all the laws, regulations, and human rights mandates, each day across the world, millions of men, women and children are trafficked for domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, child labour, bonded labour, child marriage, and other forms of exploitation like sex tourism and military use of children - almost always with little or no wages. According to the International Labour Organisation, human trafficking generates $150 million a year in illegal profits, and there are around 21.6 million victims of forced labour across the world. This is however only the tip of the iceberg. The result is a seemingly unstoppable system of exploitation, fuelled by money, greed and desire.

Image: Children at a shelter on Garstin Bastion Road, India

Clearly, human trafficking is a big problem. The reality of it is very disturbing. It lies in the words of those who have been harassed so much that they are afraid of leading normal lives, who are so dependent on their exploiters that they are afraid to break out of the routine. However, there is hope in the gradual change that is happening. For instance, in India, the fact that there are stronger laws today against human trafficking and for protection of children such as Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act 2016, besides many others, is a huge change. The fact that many people have been rehabilitated and compensated through schemes such as the Central Sector Scheme for Bonded Labourers 2016 is a change. The fact that there exist remarkable court decisions, Standard Operating Procedures and Public Interest Litigations to prevent children and adults from all forms of exploitation and to rehabilitate them through a stronger institutional and judicial framework, is a change. These changes have come about through the collective and untiring effort of grassroots organisations, academicians, researchers and the government over many decades. 

Working against human trafficking is demanding and the experience is often emotionally draining,  However, it is an incredible learning experience. From learning how victim assistance services work at the most challenging grassroots level with limited resources, to learning how the judicial processes function within constraints to ensure access to justice for its people and to learning hard-core policy formulation and advocacy with the government, it exposes you to the rigours of development at the most challenging and intellectual levels. You meet inspiring human beings- mentors and teachers-who open up space for critical inquiry and challenge you to go beyond what you are capable of, in order to learn the most, true, ugly and unbiased development lessons. More importantly, it teaches you to be courageous and hopeful, to have strong opinions and translate them into action. 

I hope that this brief account of work against human trafficking can give us the strength to fight for freedom and justice for all, irrespective of our educational or professional background.  I have worked with an Indian production house The Storygraphers, to create a documentary on human trafficking, ‘Freedom Matters’, which won the HART Prize for Human Rights 2016 in London. It features Nobel Peace Laureate Shri Kailash Satyarthi. To watch the documentary and discover more about human trafficking and what you can do to fight it, follow the link here.

Pankhuri graduated from SOAS University in 2016 with an MSc in Development Studies, and currently works as a Consultant with Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in India and the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK . See her Linkedin here.

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