Northeast & its trafficking disease

The crisis of child-trafficking in Northeast India resurfaced in public debate when the Delhi-based Caravan magazine broke another story in July this year on the intricacies of trafficking in Silchar, Assam.

Failure to Create Rural Jobs

The issue of trafficking in Northeast India is symptomatic of many economic, social and political factors that exist in the region, the primary ones being underdevelopment, political isolation and inefficient governance. Education and the failure of the job market to offer and successfully integrate employment opportunities, especially outside urban centres has played a huge role in paving the way for trafficking, because many of the victims of child-trafficking come from economically underprivileged, mostly rural backgrounds. Therefore, political economy becomes one of the driving forces behind the vulnerability of children and women.

Implicit Involvement of State Administration

The article also unveils the crucial pattern in trafficking, that which strongly implicates the police, the army and government officials in the trade. According to the report, the police in Silchar have been actively involved in protecting the brothels. One police officer interviewed denied the operation of child-trafficking itself and justified prostitution in the town as ‘an old profession’.

The breakthrough of another child-trafficking case in Shillong, Meghalaya earlier this year, where a 14-year-old was allegedly raped by an MLA, Julius Dorphang, in a guesthouse owned by the son of the current State Home Minister, H D R Lyngdoh, has raised more concern and rage over State officials’ involvement in such crimes. In both these cases, the police and public-office-holders have been found to not only be complacent in the rackets but active consumers of child prostitution as well. Thus, another factor which heavily contributes to the continued crisis of child-trafficking in these states is the strong nexus between pimps, traffickers, consumers, and State agencies.

Lack of Sustained Institutional Support

The lack of an efficient infrastructural support to help mitigate trafficking in the region is also to be underlined. Many NGOs and social activists reportedly cite the lack or scarcity of financial aid coming from both the government (state and central) and even the UN, often not because the money is not released but because it somehow vanishes or gets tremendously reduced when traveling from source to the victims. Apart from adversely affecting the quality of investigations and crackdowns, the non-availability of adequate funds has also impacted the aftermath of the rescue of victims.

It is common knowledge that former prostitutes and trafficked child sex-workers have little or no financial and social support, owing much to the failure of rehabilitation processes. There is a severe dearth of rehabilitation homes and also effective measures to help victims in terms of medical treatment, provision of alternative livelihood and social integration. Most of the women and children are illiterate and unskilled and are often made to choose other forms of physical labour in the informal sector like domestic work and construction work, both of which are professions which seldom offer them even the minimum wage.

Othering Sex Workers, an Accepted Norm

Further, the other huge challenge to these women and children is the fact that many are outcasts, haunted by the stigma of being former sex workers. In fact, their employability also diminishes in the eyes of future employers. Morality surrounding sex work and sex in general in these states also determines the fate of victims post their escape from the trade. Are societal norms and morality buffering the support that is necessary for them to assimilate themselves into society? Thus, the infrastructural failure to absorb these people in the formal labour market goes hand in hand with the society’s often silent rejection of them as equal human beings.

Apart from the domestic market, the traffick-reliant sex industry in the region supplies copiously to cities across the country. Many crackdowns have been made on the circuits which link sex traffickers from various states in the Northeast with pimps and brothels in Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi. The crackdowns reveal the well-known pattern of having women from the region work in salons and spas, where they’d also perform sex work if and when the demand arises. It is interesting to note that in places outside the Northeast, trafficking caters to the huge demand for exoticized products, in the form of Northeastern women, the category we all are aware is vulnerable to hyper-sexualization. Further, the question of livelihood comes into play here as well since many of the women who are working in this trade see it as a step towards economic independence and also an escape from the unemployment nightmare back home.

It is important to note here that even though some degree of consent is traced, it is one manufactured by the socioeconomic and political scenario of the contexts the workers come from. The sex-positive feminist argument used in many western countries fails here also because there is no legal protection of women, and they remain trapped in the power structure that exists between them and the pimps and customers.

 A Question of Rights, Not Charity

Sex trafficking and its manifestation is different in every context. Reports and stories broken in the past two years have all collectively underscored similar structural problems that lead to and help sustain this phenomenon in various states of the region. Calling for an effective and abled system to redress this crisis is just one remedy. What is more important is to urge the State and civil society to address the underlying power structures, social and economic, so as to help tackle this disease gradually from the roots.

First published in Eclectic Northeast

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Gertrude Lamare and Dabormaian Kharmawphlang are a member of Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR)

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