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Indian cities need special courts to fight sex trafficking

NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - India’s cities and major tourist destinations need specialised courts to deal with the growing numbers of women and girls who are being trafficked as prostitutes in the region, according to a senior judge.

Children of sex workers attend an art camp at Sonagachi, the largest red light district in Kolkata February 16, 2008. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal/Files

South Asia is the second largest venue for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Swati Chauhan, the Mumbai-based magistrate of India’s only court dealing with cases under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA), said more such courts are essential as they focused more on the victim than on the perpetrator.

“The ITPA is a benevolent and victim-friendly legislation and its purpose is not only to punish the accused, but to prevent re-trafficking of women through a special court which oversees the rehabilitation of victims,” Chauhan told TrustLaw.

“I am the judge in only court in India which hears all the cases of trafficking under the ITPA in Mumbai. I feel that such courts are needed in Delhi, Goa, Pune and Kolkata,” she said.

Over 150,000 people are known to be trafficked within the region every year - mostly for sex work, but also for labour, forced marriages and as part of the organ trade, according to UNODC officials.

Actual numbers are likely to be higher as much of the trade is underground, they said.


According to activists, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing transnational organised crimes in South Asia.

Traffickers often take advantage of impoverished communities, luring girls and young women and girls with promises of jobs as maids or nannies in wealthy households in the cities. But, activists say, the reality is very different.

Girls sent to India’s towns and cities often end up as involuntary sex workers, sometimes detained in a room by their employers and forced into unprotected sex with multiple partners.

India’s bustling business capital Mumbai is a popular source, transit and destination station for traffic in women and girls, according to Chauhan.

“We find a lot of girls from Bangladesh and Nepal. They end up in Mumbai and they are in the brothels -- detained sometimes -- forced into prostitution work,” she said.

“Girls who are lucky to be rescued by police and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Mumbai are brought before me and it is my job to understand their situation and work out the best form of rehabilitation for them to ensure that they do not go back into sex work.”


Chauhan’s court was established in 2008 after the city’s high court found there was a backlog of 1,500 trafficking cases and ordered that a special place be established to hear such cases.

All girls rescued from brothels in Mumbai are now brought before Chauhan, who works with a group of experts, including representatives from NGOs, on how best to ensure the victim is not re-trafficked.

Sometimes the girls are taken out of parental custody, if the parents are deemed unsuitable, and placed in shelters run by NGOs. They are offered various forms of vocational training, such as catering or beauty therapy, for one year, and then given employment with the court monitoring the entire rehabilitation program from start to finish.

However, Chauhan said, in many cases the girls already have become “hardcore” sex workers, accepted it as their fate and it is often difficult to persuade them that there are other choices.

“Sometimes the girls say that they are doing the prostitution work voluntarily, that they do it will their will. But the real story is not so. They have accepted it as their destiny because of no option,” she said.

“The court tries to show these girls that there are other options that are far less harmful.”

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