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‘Prison Would've Been Better’: Women Cry Foul Over Celebrated Indian Charity

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Sunset at Nizampet in Rangareddy District, Hyderabad. Image via Wikicommons. India, 2011.

Sunset at Nizampet in Rangareddy District, Hyderabad. Image via Wikicommons. India, 2011.

  • This article is the subject of a legal complaint made on behalf of Sunitha Krishnan and Prajwala.

She was snatched from the streets of Hyderabad last year in broad daylight, three strangers tugging her hair and grabbing her tightly by the throat, she says.

They locked her in a compound 45 miles away, ringed with electric fencing. Repeatedly but unsuccessfully, she implored them to let her call her family.

For about a year, she says, her captors made her sew and clean bathrooms for money that she never received. She grew distraught, and after several months self-harmed.

The story would sound familiar to many trafficking survivors. Except that her alleged tormentors were not a criminal gang but an NGO that, praised by celebrities and humanitarians worldwide, claims to have saved thousands of women and girls from sexual slavery since the 90s.

The woman, who is a sex worker, was allegedly snatched by a team consisting of police and staff from the anti-trafficking organisation Prajwala, which has received hundreds of thousands of pounds from major donors including the US government and the UN.

The unpaid work she was forced to do was part of what Prajwala calls a “life skills” programme, which the charity describes as part of its “rescue and rehabilitation” strategy.

The woman, who requested anonymity, finds the idea that she was rescued preposterous. “It would have been better to be in prison, at least you can meet with your family there,” she says.

Prajwala is among the organisations running more than 150 shelters in India, where thousands of women and girls deemed survivors of trafficking are incarcerated by court order each year under a draconian anti-prostitution law.

Sunitha Krishnan, Prajwala’s leader, has won numerous international awards. In 2009, she featured on a list of anti-trafficking heroes compiled by the US state department. In June, a panel including actor George Clooney awarded her $30,000 (£23,401) at the Aurora prize for humanitarian work held in Armenia.

But interviews with sex workers, activists, outreach workers and police paint a picture of life inside Prajwala’s secretive shelters very much at odds with the one Krishnan has presented to the world.

Former detainees describe an atmosphere of fear and despair, where those who rebel against their detention are beaten, and where there is virtually no contact with the outside world. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common at the shelter, they say.

One woman held there more than two years ago says staff beat her after she resisted being searched and having her belongings confiscated. “They hit my head with a stick,” she says.

Of seven former inmates who spoke to the Guardian, five say they witnessed staff beating other detainees or were subjected to violence themselves.

Krishnan denies the allegations of beatings, but acknowledges that self-harm and suicide attempts are common at Prajwala. “I would say [there are] at least two attempts a day,” she said, on the sidelines of the Aurora prize ceremony in June.

She admitted that women had been made to do unpaid work. “Many resist in the beginning as they are not used to daytime activities,” she said.

While Krishnan said products made at the workshops are sold only occasionally to visitors who wish to contribute to the charity, former detainees claim they have seen outsiders regularly buying stock in bulk.

Prajwala runs two shelters in Hyderabad, housing more than 600 women and girls. Krishnan said holding women there against their will is justified because “they are indoctrinated to believe that they have to get out”.

Detainees are denied phone calls if a woman’s family is suspected of involvement in trafficking her. Such suspicions are aroused when someone wants to get their relative released, Krishnan said, because an “innocent” family would reject a relative involved in sex work.

“Any family who is trying to get custody of the girl, for me this is the first sign they were involved in this crime,” she said.

After her cousin was detained at Prajwala this year, one woman told the Guardian she found out about another detainee whose family were unaware their relative was being held there. She contacted the woman’s sister, who hadn’t heard from her sibling in over a year. “We thought she was dead,” the sister said.

Krishnan rejected the Guardian’s request to visit a shelter. “We do not allow journalists,” she said. “If people think we are not transparent, so be it.”

Shelter detention has been reported in at least a dozen other countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, according to a 2010 study published in Human Rights Quarterly.

Anne Gallagher, co-author of the study and an expert on international trafficking law, says keeping adult survivors of trafficking in shelters against their will could constitute arbitrary detention.

She says it is “likely to be illegal” if people are held for prolonged or unspecified periods, or in a “discriminatory manner”. In India, as in other countries, it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are kept in shelters.

Prajwala does not distinguish between women who enter sex work voluntarily and genuine trafficking survivors, nor between those who consent to being “rescued” and those who do not.

It is an approach to anti-trafficking that is used around the world and is driven in large part by US policy. The US state department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report ranks countries according to their efforts to tackle slavery. Nations falling into the lowest tier face restrictions on foreign assistance, including international loans.

At the same time, the rankings reward countries that make more arrests, prosecutions and rescues. In response, law enforcement worldwide tends to focus on the sex industry, which yields faster results than complex investigations into other forms of trafficking.

“It’s always going to be easier to raid a brothel,” says Gallagher.

The rankings also incentivise governments and law enforcement to label non-trafficked sex workers as trafficking survivors and forcibly rescue people, rights advocates say.

“In India the law sees trafficking and sex work as the same thing,” says Meera Raghavendra, founder of the sex worker advocacy group Women’s Initiatives, based in Hyderabad.

She estimates that at shelters in and around the city, “not even 2% of women are trafficked, while the rest are voluntary sex workers”.

A professional working on women’s issues, who wished to remain anonymous, met with the detainees after they were arrested and transferred to a nearby prison. The women were “crying uncontrollably” as they recounted being beaten by Prajwala staff, said the source, who recalled seeing cuts and bruises all over their bodies.

Krishnan said her staff “have never been violent with the girls”, and suggested the women’s injuries were caused by “physical abuse while in prostitution”.

Devi, an activist who is based in Hyderabad and goes by one name, has led counselling sessions in women’s prisons and says she has met several groups of inmates with visible injuries they claimed to have sustained at Prajwala, or at police stations with Prajwala staff present.

One group of 13 inmates told her they had been beaten with sticks by Prajwala staff inside the shelter before being arrested, she says.

Last year, the US state department awarded Prajwala and another organisation $735,000 for a project to help police convict more traffickers using “victim-centred investigations”.

Several UN agencies have also worked with Prajwala. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime donated up to $30,000 in 2009 to help with “rescue” operations and other activities. The agency’s chief of advocacy, Brian Hansford, said the donation “followed strict UN procedures”. A Unicef spokesperson said its support for the charity was worth roughly $5,000 and ended in 1999.

Gallagher says: “Donors have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that the funds they are providing are not being used in ways that violate the rights of victims of trafficking.

“If donors are not making themselves aware of how their money is being spent, then they are complicit in the violations. That’s just common sense.”