Finding their voice, Indian girls, women testify against abusers – Police raid several brothels, rescuing women, children 

VIJAYWADA: This year, Pinki, the lead singer of a rock band in southern India, wants to learn to play the guitar. She wants to “strum the guitar like a boy” on stage and use music to forget her journey from a brothel to the band that is hired to perform at weddings and parties, the 19-year-old said. Her new year’s resolution comes a year after an Indian court convicted 40 people of buying and selling girls in the southern state of Karnataka – among them Pinki’s own abusers.
Thanks to her testimony, the woman who trafficked her from her home into prostitution and the man who owned the brothel in the town of Ballari where she worked for eight months before she was rescued, were found guilty. “They should have got life instead of the 10 years imprisonment,” she said, sitting on her bed, guitar in hand and a teddy bear beside her, in her village home in Andhra Pradesh. “But I don’t want to think about it. I want to think about music instead and my boyfriend, who I hope to marry later this year.”

A thousand miles away, in the eastern city of Kolkata, another 19-year-old looks forward to 2018. As she prepares for her high school leaving exams, she is looking at colleges where she can study philosophy. The girls were barely into their teens when they were rescued by police from the Ballari brothel in 2013. But they were unable to forget the past while they waited for four years to recall the painful details of rape and abuse in court – to finally see their exploiters convicted. Now both are planning their futures.

Looking back
In 2013, police raided several brothels in Ballari in Karnataka, rescuing 43 women, including 21 children, and seizing evidence including cash and account ledgers. Both the teenagers were among the rescued, seven of whom were from Bangladesh and the rest were from Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka and Odisha.
After her rescue, Pinki was placed at a home run by anti-trafficking charity Prajwala, where the Ballari survivors were asked if they were willing to testify against their traffickers. “A big part of rehabilitation is closure and testifying is part of closure,” said Sunitha Krishnan, the founder of Prajwala. “We don’t tell them to forget what has happened but to recover and resolve the memory instead.” Prajwala estimates that 200,000 women and children are forced into prostitution through threat and coercion every year. Of an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, say campaign and support groups working in India.

Witness box
The odds, campaigners say, are pitted against trafficking survivors who decide to take their cases to court, with threats and intimidation from traffickers common. The 2017 Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department stated that victim identification and protection in India is “inadequate and inconsistent”. “The government sometimes penalized victims through arrests for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to human trafficking,” the report states, pointing to disproportionately low conviction rates relative to the scale of trafficking.

According to Indian government data, less than half of the more than 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in 2016 were filed in court by the police and the conviction rate in cases that did go to trial was 28 percent. “The thought of standing up to the brothel owners and identifying the traffickers and brothel owner was very, very scary,” said Pinki, who goes by an alias. “But I kept thinking that no one else should be in this situation. That gave me some courage to stand in court.” Hiding herself in a burqa, she travelled twice to the court in Ballari to testify. Sitting in the same room as her abusers, separated only by a curtain, made her fearful, she recalled.

“The judge was a man and I remember breaking down as I told them about my days in the brothel,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I remember asking him if they would be punished and he told me not to worry and tell the truth.” Defense lawyers questioned why they were hiding in burqas, and what had brought them to Ballari, suggesting they were in the brothels of their own will. But all of the young women stuck to their story, and told the truth, Pinki said. The testimony of Pinki and 17 other Ballari survivors shut down an entire trafficking network, with the conviction of pimps, brothel owners, customers and traffickers, police said.

Intrusive, illegal tests
Rape survivors in India continue to be subjected to intrusive tests that the government and courts banned years ago, campaigners said yesterday. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the “two-finger test”, which involves a doctor inserting fingers into the vagina to determine if the victim is sexually active, violated the right to privacy. The government in 2014 issued fresh guidelines that did away with the practice, which is primarily a virginity test, saying it “had no bearing on a case of sexual violence”.

The guidelines also directed investigators to focus more on victim and witness testimonies, rather than relying on physical examinations to check for injuries to the genital area. Yet, the two-finger test continues to be performed, victim testimonies are given little weight and investigators are “preoccupied with genital injuries”, said more than 50 activists and experts in a letter to India’s health ministry. “The absence of injuries is frequently equated with the absence of assault and denies their rights and autonomy,” said the letter, which was shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The government introduced reforms after the fatal gang rape of a woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012, which sparked domestic and international outrage.

Campaigners hoped that new guidelines would improve conviction rates by shifting the focus to testimonies rather than humiliating and ineffective medical tests. However, the letter states that just a handful of states have issued orders to implement the guidelines, and that only a few urban healthcare facilities in those states are following them. “(According to) the traditional form of examination, a majority of survivors would have not been raped,” said Padma Deosthali, a signatory who was key consultant to the government’s 2014 reforms. The southern state of Kerala has issued its own version of the guidelines, which includes the two-finger test, said the letter which was sent to the health ministry last week.- Agencies