Second edition of discussion on AHT and COVID-19 : Key Takeaways

The Movement and Prerana

The COVID-19 crisis is a unique situation that has brought in new challenges in the fight against human trafficking. In continuation of our efforts of bringing various organizations together to network and collaborate for better coordination in the anti-human trafficking sector, Prerana and The Movement held the second edition of the digital roundtable on COVID19 on 7th July 2020. The discussion focussed on responses and challenges in anti-human trafficking by involving partners from both source and destination areas. Many organizations from Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bangladesh that provide direct services to victims of human trafficking participated in the discussion. Read more to know the key takeaways from the discussion

1: COVID19 and Cyclone 

Cyclone Amphan significantly added to the existing challenges that were brought about by COVID19 in carrying out interventions and providing services. The discussion focused on sharing experiences of organizations in West Bengal dealing with this crisis. It also included challenges and strategies with the repatriation of victims to Bangladesh and exploring the challenges in linkages between relief work, disaster management, and AHT interventions in the current times. The following were the takeaways of the discussion- 

Relief work – 

  • The COVID19 situation is constantly defining and redefining a new normal. The Cyclone Amphan affected the precautions for COVID19. Social distancing was significantly affected. 
  • Since the beginning of the lockdown, many organizations have connected with victims to assess basic necessities. A key concern for many victims has been the payment of the housing rent.
  • Access to public distribution systems remains very limited. In most cases, families are dependent on civil society for relief material.
  • Many organizations have also been working to provide relief material for victims and families to avoid debt accumulation as that could lead to re-trafficking.
  • In terms of relief, some organizations shared that they had done cash transfers to the families and the victims. However, the families that live in remote villages had also found it challenging to reach the ATMs to withdraw the money. 
  • The opening of liquor shops has been negative for the communities as the savings are being used to buy alcohol instead of necessary provisions in some cases. Instances of alcohol-induced violence have also been observed within families. 

Issues of safety and protection –

  • During the lockdown, many victims have suffered domestic violence, raising concerns about safety and protection within the home.
  • There has been an increase in the number of cases of child marriages. Deepening inequalities after the pandemic might cause these increases further as many parents are opting to get their children married in these times to avoid heavy expenditure.
  • An increase in the number of cases of child sexual abuse has also been observed by the organizations working in the source areas. Many accused have also made bail applications. However, most of them have been opposed to the court.  
  • Trafficking for labor exploitation (brick kilns) in marginalized communities like Dalit and Musahar communities has been observed.
  • Many brothels have shut in areas like Sonagachi in Kolkata, but elderly women can still be seen there. In areas like Bidya and Begusarai, some shadow entertainment like dance bars has been reported to be closed.
  • One partner organization shared that traffickers have also started targeting communities by impersonating relief organizations. They have been reportedly targeting families who have more girls, or where the women are the primary breadwinners (widows and single mothers). They may provide relief initially but eventually lure the girls into exploitation. 
  • Section 144 has been imposed in the Red Light areas in Kolkata but customers have continued to visit, mostly through backdoor entrances. In certain cases, the customers are seeking minor daughters over the mother who is soliciting. 
  • Police personnel are busy with COVID19 so it becomes difficult to get assistance in cases of sexual exploitation. 

Interventions and Services –

  • The children in CCIs are stressed out. Online counseling is not quite acceptable to children. There is also little clarity in the guidelines for CCIs to follow. Example – They are expected to establish isolation centers for children but they do not have the necessary infrastructure.
  • In cases of cross border trafficking cases – repatriation has stopped and the girls have become quite stressed and anxious. A partner from Bangladesh shared that the last repatriation that was to take in the last week of March 2020 has been postponed indefinitely due to the lockdown. The travel permits of these girls and women have also expired by now. The girls are getting affected and the families are also becoming restless. 
  • One partner organization also shared about losing one of their staff members due to COVID19.

2: Livelihood Trends 

COVID19 has adversely affected the on-going rehabilitation process for the victims, especially the economic rehabilitation and self-reliance. Thus, discussions around possible livelihood and skilling efforts during and post COVID19 were held. Following are the highlights of the discussion – 

  • There is an increasing need for re-skilling into more marketable jobs for many victims. Many of them have lost jobs and their own ventures have also taken a hit. There are increased vulnerabilities due to the contraction of the labor market.
  • Some organizations have identified courses in Para-nursing, retail, and BPO sectors as viable options for re-skilling. 
  • Some organizations have also been trying to provide remote reskilling but it is challenging as some skills require physical training and demonstration (like beauty and wellness) and cannot be imparted remotely.
  • One partner shared that none of the women who they work with have received any form of government support. Most women lack documentation but even the ones that do have the documents have not received government support. They have also observed a reluctance among the women to seek help. Most women are also unaware of the schemes by the government.
  • It was also shared that there is a greater and increasing need for the state to undertake rehabilitation efforts for the victims. 
  • Some victims are considering going back to their villages and also exploring options of seeking customers on phones. This is a grave concern when a trafficking victim begins to internalize exploitation and consents to being in the trade.
  • It was also shared that it is important to impart skills that are marketable and will be viable in the future. However, many women who will be moving of the sex trade due to lockdown are quite underqualified, making it challenging to get them to a basic level of literacy before imparting the skills.
  • An organization also shared their experience of providing entrepreneurial assistance to women to start small scale operations. This is also adversely affected due to the current crisis.
  • For almost more than 30 years, the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) has been training semi-educated boys and girls in non-conventional trades like baking, dress designing, beauty care, etc. There were suggestions on the need to coordinate with the office of Director technical training at the state level and the district vocational and training officer also incorporating the industrial training and co-ordinate special training for the women and young girls. Freedom businesses and entrepreneurship opportunities led by the women themselves can be pathway linkages for the economic rehabilitation of older women. 
  1. Cross-section engagement

The discussion focused on exploring the need to work with the government, NGOs, and civil agencies to also focus on AHT efforts. Collaborative advocacy strategies were also discussed. The key points are listed below –

  • New challenges started emerging when laborers started returning to their villages. They had limited access to information on COVID. People have also faced harassment and have been duped by agents on the pretext of sending them home.
  • In some urban areas, and slum pockets, the men have gone back to the villages but the children and women have stayed back to protect their living space from being taken away.
  • CSO and Corporate intersection with regards to Anti-trafficking efforts are long overdue, given the considerable resources at their disposal and the enormous potential to create job opportunities specifically for the target group as a CSR project. It was proposed that partnerships with corporations might help in furthering advocacy for the issue. It was also emphasized upon how educating the audiences in the simplest of terms was important to ensure their interest in the issue. 
  • In addition to employee engagement on HT issues, we should try to bridge the gap in their thinking of ‘how could this affect us’ on the part of the corporates. They need to understand that human trafficking affects everybody at some level. Supply chain mapping is also an important discussion to initiate with such an audience. 
  • Relevant govt. resources and bodies should also be tapped to create effective gatekeeping mechanisms to prevent re-trafficking of children and women going back to the source areas. District Child Protection Units, Village, and Block level Child Protection Committees are some of these local bodies that need to be mobilized. 
  • The urgency has always marked the interventions of human trafficking but COVID has magnified the need for organizations to work together to ensure that the vulnerable don’t become more vulnerable. Organizations must continue to work to amplify the voices of the community.
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