NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female survivors of modern slavery are joining forces in India’s capital to urge lawmakers to urgently pass a tough new anti-trafficking law that aims to help victims rebuild their lives.
India’s cabinet last week approved a law which would prioritize survivors’ needs, establish a rehabilitation fund and prevent the imprisonment of victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation, such as women and girls found in brothel raids.
Dozens of survivors and activists are meeting politicians in Delhi this week to demand that the bill is passed by parliament soon amid fears it may fall off the radar with political attention expected to turn to general elections set for 2019.
Several victims - who had been sexually exploited, trapped in bonded labor and forced into marriage - said they were struggling to survive and feed their families since escaping and feared being trapped back into slave labor to survive.
“We need shelter, support, education for our children ... not just money,” said mother-of-four Meena, 50, who was trapped working in a brick kiln for three years during which time she was abused, deprived of food and paid just 5,000 rupees ($77).
Meena - who withheld her real name for fear of retribution - was rescued by activists last month, but said a lack of help from the government had driven her to send her children to work.
“We are poor so access to justice and rehabilitation is hard,” said Meena, one of five survivors who spoke at a workshop on trafficking run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Delhi.
The Trafficking of Persons Bill unifies existing anti-trafficking laws and aims to make India a leader in the fight against such crimes in South Asia, one of the fastest-growing regions for forced labor, begging and forced marriage globally.
Indian state data shows reports of trafficking rose by about 20 percent in 2016 against the previous year to 8,132 cases.
“Rehabilitation must be the major part (of the law) - the government must allocate money for these services,” said Kailash Satyarthi, joint winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for curbing child labor and fighting for their right to education.
None of the five survivors who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they had received help from the government.
The new legislation would see anti-trafficking committees set up at district, state and central levels to oversee prevention and protection efforts, and victim rehabilitation.
Ravi Kant, founder of anti-trafficking group Shakti Vahin, said ensuring the legislation was enforced all across the country - not just in Delhi - would be a big challenge.
Several of the slavery survivors said they were frustrated by efforts to seek justice against traffickers but wanted more.
“Justice is important but rehabilitation (under the law) is just as important because these women often have no food for themselves ... and no security,” said Kranti Khode of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan, a collective of trafficking survivors in India.
Sunita, 28, escaped slavery last year after being kidnapped and sold to a man who held her captive and raped her over several months. Her freedom is tainted by fear as her traffickers live near her family and harass her daily.
Sunita said she hoped the law would make a difference for her future and that of her 3-month-old baby born of rape.
“I hope it will be good for women like me ... for everyone,” said Sunita, who also declined to give her real name.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org