Sex trafficking survivors in India undergo re-victimization by the judiciary

The moment she receives the summons, the difficult memory work she has performed in a desperate attempt to delete the violence she has suffered disintegrates. 

Fatema (name changed) speaks with reluctance of her imprisonment in a Budhwarpet brothel. She was prostituted to over a dozen men everyday, often beaten, and confined to her room. A rescue team raided the place one night, released the girls, and Fatema was taken to a shelter home. The authorities registered an FIR, put her through medical tests, traced her family, and soon after this, she was sent home.

Fatema’s struggles with reclaiming her personhood continue to this day, three years after her repatriation, even as she has been through the proverbial rehabilitation mill. She has been assigned a social worker who has been supportive in the wake of her trauma – a period when she sank into deep depression, and felt friendless and cut-off from the world. Within months of her homecoming, her parents arranged her marriage with a man from a neighboring village. Nothing was said about the incident of trafficking.

This is customary practice in West Bengal, which is the biggest source area for trafficking crimes in India, with 53,645 missing persons on the record in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Girls are lured away from their homes – their families are low-income and lack livelihood resources, let alone access to opportunity – with assurances of remunerative work or marriage, both being lucrative choices for victims. Those who are rescued and repatriated are more often than not married off, with the new husband none the wiser about his wife’s traumatic history. In her marital family, the survivor has to work to keep this secret from her relatives and harbour a constant tension that somehow they might find out, and if they do, she will have to deal with a tremendous backlash, despite the fact that she was not culpable in the episode of trafficking. Her victimhood continues in insidious ways, and the social system is liable for this.

While it is not the ideal method for a sex trafficking survivor’s reintegration, most women choose the approach of clamping their mouths down on their stories to avoid reliving their trauma. Domestic strife and the ensuing stigmatisation and shaming are dispelled with this strategy. Many married survivors go on to have children and settle into family life, and establish stable routines of work, and manage to push their damages to the back-burner. By keeping silence about what happened to them, they rewrite a different narrative for themselves, in which erasure of trauma may not be possible, but forgetting it might be. 

Except when ghosts from that troublesome past come to their doorsteps as uniformed policemen, years after they were rescued from the sex trade. They bring a summons issued from a court in that region, and stipulate without prelude that the survivor must go with them to depose at that court, where their cases against their trafficker or brothel manager or pimp (or some or all of them) have come to trial. The police will usually deliver this summons twice, and then return with a warrant to escort the survivor from her home to the courtroom for mandatory deposition.

The first appearance of police personnel in a presumably traditionalist rural household can set in motion a chain of events that are standard judicial procedure, but a nightmarish ordeal for the survivor who has been called to depose. The moment she receives the summons, the difficult memory work she has performed in a desperate attempt to delete the violence she has suffered disintegrates.

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