ARZ: Offering a New Lease of Life
Iris CF Gomes
The estimated number of people in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) all over the world is 21 million (International Labour Organization). These figures are shocking, to say the least, keeping in mind that we had an estimated worldwide population of 7.6 billion in 2017. The web of deceit, manipulation and intrigue, captures the most vulnerable, with women and girls constituting a huge 55% in totality. In particular, 98% of those in sexually exploitative situations are women and girls. Children make up 26% of this number of forced labour. These numbers include victims of human trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation.
In Goa, we have an organisation called ARZ, or Anyay Rahit Zindagi (Life without Injustice), that is fighting a tenacious battle against trafficking for commercial sex work. ARZ began its social work rehabilitating commercial sex workers in Baina, Goa, in 1998, after a group of professionals from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) established the organisation in 1997. Arunendra Kumar Pandey is one of the founders and the present director of the organisation, who was part of national-level research on prostitution.
As a student at TISS, Arunendra puzzled over the sexual exploitation of women despite there being laws to curb it; the reasons behind the women’s participation and the pimps’ involvement; and the role of religion in prostitution with reference to the devdasis of Karnantaka and the joginis of Andhra Pradesh, besides other community-based prostitution. The conclusion he and his founder members drew was that this was far more than a social evil that could not be eliminated – it was a crime being committed against women wherein they were treated as commodities in a market. ‘To control this exploitation, we believe the market has to be broken. To break the market, you need to prevent a new generation coming into this situation, you need to rescue those who are already involved in it, those who are directly involved in the exploitation need to be prosecuted, and those who are indirectly providing protection to these people must be exposed. With this strategy in place, ARZ began its work in 1998,’ says Arunendra.
Goa was chosen as a base because it was one of the regions covered in the national research study. The red light area in Baina was in existence at the time and there was religion and community based prostitution in Goa. The founders of ARZ felt that since the magnitude of the problem was not as excessive as in other places and the number of girls arriving from the source areas was low, their model of intervention could be applied here to make a difference.
Arunendra says, ‘After the demolition of Baina, the problem continued and spread.’ In the past, there were girls brought in from three to four states. Now they come in from eighteen states. The reason for this is that when Baina existed, the women there were usually socio-economically and educationally backward and did not care much about the squalor they lived in. ‘Post demolition (in 2004) the profile of the clientele has change. The demand is more for girls who cannot be identified by the public. Baina had a different type of clientele (truck drivers, labourers, etc),’ says Arunendra. Prior to 2004, the prostitution was more slum based. Now you find these exploitative activities taking place in hotels, flats, massage parlours, etc and the customers are from 19 to around 28 years of age, from the more professional backgrounds like the IT sector, and from metropolitan cities. These days, commercial sex workers need to be proficient in English and Hindi, and able to blend in rather than stand out. The girls are not just brought in from other Indian states but also from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Central Asia.
There is an increase in sexual exploitation through online sources, as Arunendra says, ‘Previously there was a lot of physical involvement of the traffickers. They would go into rural areas, identify vulnerable girls, lure them, transport them to Goa and then sell them. They would contact hotel staff, taxi drivers, bike pilots, and tour operators and form a network with them. Through them, the traffickers would sell the girls. Now everything happens on the net. Customers look for a girl online, call a number, and the girl is delivered to them. Today we are facing a situation where the traffickers are faceless. Whom do you arrest?!’
Some websites allow easy access to the phone numbers of call girls. This challenge has flummoxed the authorities who have not yet developed a strategy to combat the issue. They are only able to rescue girls and nab a few low-level perpetrators who are not the main individuals helming the operations.
ARZ is the nodal NGO of the Integrated Anti Human Trafficking Unit for the state of Goa (appointed by the police in Goa to assist them). The police informs the organisation of a location of commercial sex work and together they conduct a raid. ARZ has a trained counsellor, lawyer and social workers to accompany the police to make sure that the victim’s rights are not trampled upon, to help her record her statement and counsel her. The NGO members support the victim when she has her medical examination, produce her before the magistrate, etc. ARZ collaborates with the government’s Protective Home to provide counselling and rehabilitative services under the project Prabhat. The NGO makes provisions to send the victims back to their home countries or home states and reunite them with their families.
ARZ conducts awareness workshops for hotel staff, taxi drivers, bike pilots, etc to sensitise them about how the state’s reputation can be destroyed due to the trafficking and commercial sex work and how this would affect the tourism industry and their own livelihoods in the long run.
The organisation attempts to erase the stamp on a victim of sexual exploitation of an ‘outsider’ by creating awareness that this manner of thinking is how the traffickers and pimps keep a hold on their victims. By moving the victim away from any support system and people known to her, the traffickers ensure that there is no way out for these girls. It is these informed individuals who later turn informants to curb the problem of sexual exploitation.
In the event of the victim’s family not accepting her, she is handed over to NGOs or government institutions within her home state for rehabilitation. In Goa, ARZ has the Swift Wash industrial laundry unit at Sancoale industrial estate, which was established in 2006, as a non-shelter-based programme for the economic rehabilitation of victims of commercial sexual exploitation as well as other individuals involved, such as brothel-keepers and pimps. The people employed here earn a salary of Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per month. They are provided with Employees' State Insurance (ESI), provident fund, crèche facilities, buses for pick-up and drop, etc. Arunendra says, ‘We pay the victim’s rent for a month and pay a deposit, if any… pay her ration (groceries) for one month…provide her with pocket money. For the first month, all the expenses are taken care of. From the next month she gets her salary. She doesn’t have to return any of the expenses of the first month.’
The success stories of ten women who left behind the world of sexual exploitation to lead hope-filled lives through employment at Swift Wash, are recorded in the book Beautiful Women: Journeys from despair to dignity.
The girls working at Swift Wash can avail of counselling and psychiatric help. If deemed to be emotionally and mentally fit enough, there is a placement programme through ARZ that allows them to move to other jobs. Sometimes they come back to Swift Wash because of difficulty in adjusting. ‘We have to understand that they go through a lot of abuse and suffer psychological trauma. It takes time. Many of the girls who are unable to move out continue at Swift Wash. There are girls who have been working with us for the last eleven years because the harm caused to them is so excessive that they cannot manage elsewhere,’ says Arunendra.
Legalisation of prostitution is not the solution to the problem of sex trafficking because it does not control the violence committed against the girl, who is seen merely as a commodity. Arunendra says, ‘Commercial sexual activity is a form of violence against these girls.’ Most of these girls do not get into prostitution on their own. Certain factors make them vulnerable: rape, sexual abuse as children, poverty, dysfunctional families, illiteracy and the desire to earn more than their capacity, man-made and natural disasters. ‘In the last so many years, I have not come across even one case where the girl has come into this on her own. Someone has always taken advantage of the victim’s situation. The degree of willingness or consent may vary… Even if you legalise prostitution, you are only going to measure the degree of the willingness of the girl,’ says Arunendra, validly pointing out that the girls will still be at a risk of dealing with men with perverse intentions, psychological problems and so on. The other danger of legalising prostitution is that the traffickers, who are already difficult to pin down despite laws in place against trafficking, will gain an upper hand legally.
Commercial sexual exploitation can be curbed to an extent by identifying vulnerable populations and having sturdy socio-economic initiatives in those areas, continuing to rescue girls and giving them psycho-socio rehabilitation as well as a livelihood. Society, the state and even NGOs have a mind-set of viewing these women’s presence as being detrimental to the community and that they need to be caged and kept apart. ‘Swift Wash is one of the few initiatives where the women have freedom, are allowed to make their own choices and are allowed to stay in society,’ says Arunendra. There are two rules that are required to remain at Swift Wash: the women can no longer participate in prostitution and they have to educate their children.
ARZ has launched a national portal www.stoptrafficking.in to trace missing children and combat trafficking. The organisation which was awarded the Stree Shakti Puraskar (Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar Award) in 2015, has another project called Ankur especially to protect children from sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation.
For more information about ARZ, please visit www.arzindia.org .
ARZ (Anyay Rahit Zindagi)
Flat no. 4, 1st floor,
Our Lady of Guia Building (RTO Building),
Next to BDO Office,
Vasco, Goa, India - 403 802