Activists, experts oppose anti-trafficking bill, Tharoor says it could have devastating effects

For the upcoming monsoon session parliament that begins on Wednesday, a group of lawyers, sex workers, child rights activists, transgender activists and educators have opposed the anti-trafficking bill that is scheduled to be tabled.

Drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and approved by the Cabinet in February, the provisions of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill aim at increasing prevention, rescue and rehabilitation. It ensures that trafficked victims are sent to rehabilitation homes, which will be run by the government and other voluntary agencies.

The bill also states that 11 ‘Aggravated Offences’ that can lead to prosecution under the law, giving a ‘victim-centric’ approach to the cause. It has been hailed as a step toward better rehabilitation of victims of trafficking.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has spoken out against the bill, saying it could have devastating effects on several stakeholders which include marginalised groups such as children, the trans community and consenting sex-workers.

Many have placed claims that the bill is essentially nothing but a veiled attempt to further criminalise sex work.

Dr Samarjit Jana, who had earlier taken part in a Supreme Court appointed panel to provide recommendations on prevention and rehabilitation of sex workers who wish to leave the profession, said that the law would have a grave impact on those suffering from HIV.

“Speaking from a public health background, the bill goes against the basic tenets of public health sciences and HIV intervention programmes. So far we have achieved some success with existing laws in terms of HIV intervention which are in keeping with international norms of not criminalising victims of epidemics, HIV included. But by including HIV as part of criminal law, we further increase alienation of those suffering from it,” Jana said.

According to Nisha Gulur, head of the National Network of Sex Workers, consenting sex workers will be severely hit by the bill. She claims that the sex workers’ community, which is one of the biggest stakeholders in anti-trafficking legislation, have not been consulted at all before the drafting of this bill.

“Despite what the Minister for Women says, the bill directly and indirectly criminalises consenting sex workers by including ‘soliciting’ via message or electronic media an aggravated offence. It is clearly an attack on the way sex workers communicate in their profession.” Nisha said.

Interestingly, the bill has termed giving chemicals or hormones to another for their accelerated sexual maturity an “aggravated offence”.

“I was born a man and wanted to become a woman. I left my hometown to find others from my community and could help me change. My trans sisters helped me procure hormone therapy so that I could finally achieve my identity. What is wrong with that?” said Nisha, who is also a transgender activist.

Kiran Kamal Prasad, who has worked with bonded labourers said that the bill did nothing to improve upon the already existing anti-labour exploitation laws.

“The bill mentions forced labour and bonded labour only twice. Once as among the list of the eleven aggravated offences and then towards the end. It’s an eyewash to say the bill is aimed at preventing bonded labour,” Kiran said.

Enakshi Ganguli of the HAQ Centre for Child Rights said, ““You cannot group a bunch of marginalised groups together and create an umbrella law to protect all of them from trafficking, it doesn’t work like that… there is a lack of clarity in the way this bill looks at trafficking. We have repeatedly told policymakers and the civil society that child rights and adult rights are not the same thing.”

“The more ambiguous the terms of a law, the harder it becomes to implement as it leaves more loopholes for the exploitation of vulnerable groups,” Tripti Tandon, Deputy Director at Lawyers Collective said.

Experts and activists have called that the bill be passed on to a standing committee for further consultation, this time including all stakeholders, before being made an Act, since the new law does not fill any of the existing lacunae in trafficking laws but only adds to legislative clutter.

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