After meeting with the young girls, I had the opportunity to visit the High Court in Kolkata, where I was able to witness the roadblocks they face firsthand.
The legal process in Kolkata is simple: first the perpetrator is arrested, and then an information report is created that initiates the criminal case. Statements are obtained from the victim(s), the charge sheet is prepared, and then there is a trial and judgment. However, even this simple process can take up to eight years for victims of sexual trafficking to obtain justice, due to the following problems:
- Lack of training and victim sensitivity among police officers and within the court system means that it is more difficult for sexual trafficking victims to have their crimes taken seriously.
- Corruption in the justice system lets sexual traffickers get off easily.
- Intimidation of the victim by the trafficker stops many victims from coming forward. Furthermore, most traffickers are granted bail, during which they may use their time to hurt or once again kidnap the victim.
- Delay tactics by the offender exacerbate trial lengths.
- Keeping the accused in custody penalizes the victim instead of the offender
There are convictions, although these are not very common.
Let me share a success story with you. Renuka was fifteen years of age when a man came to her village in Bangladesh and promised her marriage and a career. She left with him to Kolkata. Upon her arrival, Renuka was sold by the man -- her trafficker -- to a brothel manager. For seven months she was forced to attend "customers." She managed to escape, and then pressed charges.
During her trial, the presiding judge changed twice and the prosecutor changed once as well. Renuka was lucky though: her trial was fast tracked so that it only lasted three years. Her prosecutor also worked hard to fight her trafficker's bail applications and other challenges brought up by the opposition.
In the end, the court found the trafficker guilty of conspiring to traffic a foreign national for the purpose of selling her for prostitution. He received a ten year prison sentence; the two brothel managers received six years each. Half of the fines imposed on the offenders by the judge were awarded to Tenuka in compensation for the crimes committed against her.
It is clear to me that there is much more work to be done. Not only changing the justice system to be more accountable, but to also influence lawmakers, politicians, police officers, and citizens to take this problem more seriously. It is an overwhelming problem that has taken years of hard work, and it will continue to take hard work to make India safe for young women.
What is good is that change is already starting to occur. The breakthrough cases where traffickers have been sent to jail, such as Renuka's case, send ripples and will continue to send ripples through the red light district in Kolkata and through the justice system in India. These ripples are starting to change attitudes and beliefs regarding the acceptability of human trafficking in India. The more traffickers we can hold to account, the more they will realize that they cannot continue trafficking within India.
This is my promise to each trafficked girl that I met, and those that I could not have met:
You will not be forgotten. Like a torch leading the way, I will share your words and the light in your hearts with Canadians, as you have shared with me.
In another milestone, in May 2013, Judge Somnath Chakrabarti sentenced five traffickers to 10 years of imprisonment along with a fine that was steeper than usual.
This judgment was influenced by the Delhi gang rape, after which the district courts in Bengal were instructed by the Chief Justice of India to dispose of all women related cases within four months.
One of the victims rescued from these traffickers stated that "I feel very happy because I have been hoping for punishment since 2008". Another survivor stated "the man in jail has a very big chain of brothels. But if the law starts punishing these men and they get the most severe punishment, then this chain will start to break down".
Biju Mathew is Director of International Justice Mission, Kolkata, which helped in the rescue operation and offered legal and mental support to the witnesses. He said, "Convicting and sentencing traffickers and brothel owners to ten years is rare. But the real victory is the story behind these convictions. Those involved in the case were competent and well-equipped. The court demonstrated sensitivity to trafficking victims. It is for this reason that justice prevailed in the Court today. We hope these cases will set a precedent for all of India.