Published: 17th December 2017
How School For Justice is making lawyers out of girls who were victims of human trafficking
Among the first batch of girls who were enrolled in School For Justice, seven have secured admissions in reputed law colleges in India under the 3 and 5-year programmes
They burnt me with cigarettes if I didn’t do what they wanted. My story, like that of many others, is far too common. Being poor, I had to leave school and take on jobs to support my family. While working as a domestic help in rich homes in my region, I was sexually abused by male servants and eventually sold to a brothel when I was thirteen years old,” says Savita (name changed), a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation.
As bone-chilling as that sounds, one cannot even imagine what some of the school-age girls, who find themselves in brothels, are subjected to. But Savita is not alone. There are millions of girls like her who are forced into child prostitution. "I want to punish the men who did this to me. I come from a small family in Kultali, West Bengal. When I was sixteen years old, I was married off to a boy from my village. After two months, he sold me to a brothel in Pune,” says Chandni (name changed), another survivor of commercial sexual exploitation.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau, a total of 36,022 cases were reported in 2016 under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Despite these astonishing numbers, less than 50 cases of child prostitution lead to successful convictions on average
To combat this, Free a Girl Movement is helping survivors of child sex trafficking get justice for themselves and others like them by pursuing careers in the legal system. The School For Justice (a programme by Free a Girl) provides funding and other forms of support to girls who have escaped underage sex trafficking so that they can earn a degree in Law and become future lawyers.
Free a Girl has been working closely with local NGO partners by supporting grassroot-level teams to rescue young girls from brothels. They have successfully liberated over 4,149 girls from the vicious industry of child prostitution. Among the first batch of girls who were enrolled for School For Justice, seven of them have secured admissions in reputed law colleges in India under the 3 and 5-year programmes.
"The programme is focused on supporting survivors of forced child prostitution from different backgrounds, irrespective of urban or rural. We do have young urban women working on this project with us who are actively working to help these young aspiring lawyers overcome the hurdles that they face," says Evelien Hölsken, Co-founder, Free a Girl.
Right thing: SFJ also serves as a solution that is necessary to break the cycle of impunity
Many rural women in India are victims of sex trafficking. Traffickers often promise them opportunities for employment, only to then force them into prostitution. "If I take one perpetrator off the street, it saves many girls. Now, I want to empower women by earning a Law degree and educate young girls about their rights," says Aditi (name changed), a resident of Canning, West Bengal, who was abused and tortured every day in a brothel.
The School For Justice helps survivors become lawyers by covering the cost of school fees, housing, food and transport as they pursue their degrees. The survivors live in the same house, where they take English classes, basic Law classes and get assistance when applying to and attending university. To provide first-rate education and the opportunity to become successful lawyers, Free a Girl India plans on collaborating with top-notch law universities. "This way, the girls can be the driving force themselves in putting the offenders behind bars and ensuring that justice can be served,” says Evelien, adding that the girls will also have a brighter future through education.
The School for Justice is the first ever initiative to educate girls rescued from child prostitution to become lawyers and public prosecutors with an aim to counteract injustice of impunity
"Before my abduction, I attended higher secondary school. When I was in the brothel, I thought that I had no future ahead of me. Now, that I've been rescued, I am eager to finish what I started. Becoming a lawyer is my dream and bringing justice to those responsible for forced child prostitution is my goal," says Savita.
But why law, we wonder. Young girls have been the primary target of trafficking in India, comprising over 77 percent of all human trafficking cases nationwide over the past decade. "A lack of specialised lawyers with in-depth knowledge about human trafficking and child prostitution is a big part of the problem. Due to this gap in the justice system, most offenders are allowed to continue committing crimes. Also, the number of prosecutions against those involved is very low. In 2015, there were only 55 cases that actually led to convictions," Evelien avers.
Most of the victims' court cases have either ended up in the acquittal of the perpetrator or the trial is still ongoing, which further emotionally breaks the girls because they haven't got justice for what they have been put through. This also makes them feel worthless and unmotivated to do anything positive in life. "We felt the need to first address the issue of the legal system with regards to child trafficking-related prostitution, which negatively affects the trial's outcome and thereby also creates this impunity around the crime. The low conviction rates and unrendered justice affects the victim, her family, her future and also the society in some way. Involving the rescued girls in the process only aims to empower them with the knowledge of the law, to enter the criminal justice system and help other victims get justice by trying to get the perpetrators punished," she adds.
Many underage girls end up working in brothels against their will; some are barely 7 years of age. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that human trafficking in India rose by 25 percent in 2015, with more than 40 percent of the cases involving children being bought, sold and exploited as slaves
Evelien Hölsken, Co-founder, Free a Girl
And how does the rescue operation work? In India, Free a Girl has formed a consortium with local NGOs who rescue girls, with their staff and the police. The processes involved are: investigation, validation, rescue planning, notifying the police and rescue operation. The school is currently seeking more donors from India and elsewhere to fund a new crop of participants in 2018.