Punish the Traffickers
Verma Committee’s recommendations established zero tolerance for violence against women by ending male impunity regarding all forms of rape and sexual exploitation, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes
Ruchira Gupta Delhi
India is on the edge of a paradigm shift in its legal structure to deal with human trafficking. Recommendations suggested by the Justice Verma Committee report set the pace for this much required legal revision. Through the current Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, and the proposed changes to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill and the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956, our nation has embarked on a process to bring about an evolutional change in the legal framework of the system.
Prostitution is a system based on supply and demand. The supply is formed of marginalised girls and women from poor and low-caste families. Most of these females are girls. The average age of recruitment into prostitution is between nine and 13. Of the three million prostituted females in India, 1.4 million are girls and all the others have become adults in prostitution. India is looking at finally broadening the definition of trafficking to include all forms of enslavement — from servitude to prostitution. These amendments will bring India on a par with the UN Protocol to End Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.
The UN protocol mandate states that the State parties should take necessary measures not only to criminalise the offence of trafficking, but also to prevent trafficking, protect and assist victims of trafficking and promote international cooperation to combat trafficking. It provides a ‘comprehensive international approach’ to combatting trafficking, which surpasses the earlier international trafficking prohibitions under the following conventions: 1) 1949 Convention for Suppression of Traffic in Persons and 2) Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949 Convention). India has signed and ratified the UN protocol to end trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and is now legally obliged to incorporate the UN definition on trafficking into its law.
The recommendations make unacceptable the rape of poor, low-caste and marginalised women, even for commercial reimbursement, by recognising that it is a violation of their bodily integrity
The definition legally explains exploitation, the exploiter and the exploited for the first time in India’s independent history. Exploitation is defined as forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, the forced removal of organs, and prostitution or other forms of sexual violence and exploitation. The exploiter is clearly defined as the recruiter, transferer, transporter, harbourer or receiver of a person for the purpose of exploitation. The exploited is defined as the forced or bonded labourer, slave, person in domestic or other kinds of servitude and the prostituted woman or child.
By making the consent of victims to their own exploitation irrelevant, the definition frees millions of prostituted females whose survival strategies are written off as choices, from culpability. So far the police and judiciary were often powerless to hold traffickers and end-users accountable, because women and girls were unable to explain that they were seduced, coerced, tricked or forced to submit to their own exploitation, because they or their children were hungry or most of their decisions were taken away from them.
The proposed definition of trafficking decriminalises the woman and shifts the blame from the victim to the perpetrator — the person who recruits, harbours, receives, transfers and transports. By doing so, the laws will correct a historical wrong initiated by British colonial authorities. The British had made laws to make disease-free women sexually available for British soldiers and clerks by setting up licenced brothels through the Contagious Diseases Act. This Act did not have a definition of trafficking, and therefore no punishment for traffickers at all. It had very light punishments for clients and pimps and kept prostitutes invisible and off the streets by punishing them for soliciting in a public place.
The colonial Act served as the model for our own anti-trafficking law, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), which too punished women for soliciting, did not define trafficking or the trafficker and had very light punishments for end-users. Now, trafficking will no longer be a victimless crime, but will highlight that prostitution is a system in which marginalised girls, boys and women are controlled by pimps, brothel owners and customers.
This strict liability will help prevent senior public officials, including police officers, from covering up the crime of trafficking because they themselves take pay-offs, buy sex or even anonymously own brothels
The proposed amendments have a much stricter punishment for traffickers and end-users, including life imprisonment for repeat offenders, or traffickers of more than one person, and higher fines for first-time offenders. It has proposed life imprisonment for public servants who are involved in the exploitation. This strict liability will help prevent senior public officials, including police officers, from covering up the crime of trafficking because they themselves take pay-offs, buy sex or even anonymously own brothels.
The sterner punishments will deter the demand for trafficked people by holding end-users and traffickers legally accountable. In Sweden and Norway, similar laws have made the purchase of sex illegal while removing all culpability from women for selling sex, recognising their gender inequality. In both countries the demand for purchased sex and trafficking has come down.
Justice Verma’s recommendations establish zero tolerance for violence against women by ending male impunity regarding all forms of rape and sexual exploitation, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes. In a great act of social justice, the recommendations make unacceptable the rape of poor, low-caste and marginalised women, even for commercial reimbursement, by recognising that it is a violation of their bodily integrity. Prostituted women and children are seen as victims of male violence who do not risk legal penalties. Instead, they have a right to assistance to escape prostitution.
The definition proposed by the Verma Committee holds accountable pimps, traffickers, and prostitution buyers, who knowingly exploit the vulnerability of females caused by high rates of poverty, unemployment, discriminatory labour practices, gender inequalities and violence against women and children.
These recommendations can create a contemporary, democratic society where women and girls can live lives free of male violence. It addresses the urgency of the crisis in India, where 17 women are raped officially every day. Hopefully, it sets the stage for legislation that will recognise that any society that claims to defend the principles of legal, political, economic and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities that can be bought, sold and sexually exploited by men.
To do otherwise is to allow that a separate class of female human beings, especially women and girls, who are economically and caste-wise marginalised, are excluded from measures being set in place for women’s security, as well as from the universal protection of human dignity enshrined in the body of international human rights instruments developed during the past 60 years.