Rescued, Rehabilitated, Returned

A look into the institutional flaws of rehabilitation organisations, and why

rescued women return to sex work.


Nayomi Dave, Writer

We hear a lot of stories about NGOs working towards reducing sex trafficking in India, one rescue operation at a time. We hear about how victims of sex trafficking - in most cases women and children, are rescued during transit or while they are working in brothels, etc. and are given rehabilitation and/or therapy along with education and work, all with the NGO’s help. On the outside, this system might seem flawless. The victims are being rescued, getting therapy, getting better jobs, and seemingly everything is fine, but most of us are oblivious to the fact that in many cases, the victims choose to go back to sex work. They voluntarily re-enter the occupation and many go on to become brothel managers themselves. This gives rise to multiple crucial questions aimed at sex worker’s rights activists: If the victims entered sex work by force, why would they want to return to it voluntarily? If they entered sex work from a lack of skills for doing other jobs, why did they return after they were taught the required skills for these jobs?

This piece focuses on the ways in which victims of sex trade manage to leave or are rescued from the monstrous industry, on institutional rehabilitation post-rescue, and the reasons behind why it often fails leading to the unfortunate return of the victims to sex trade.

As one can imagine, escaping or leaving the industry once trafficked into red light areas is an extremely difficult and rare occurrence for victims due to a myriad of reasons. They are entrapped and confined, both in the literal and psychological sense. They are usually situated in a gated place, constantly monitored and ‘guarded’ by brothel managers, usually women who have been sex workers in the past, or men that work under the traffickers. Psychologically, the victims are made to hear of the torturous ‘punishments’ given to other sex workers who have attempted to escape or report the traffickers in the past, or how their families are threatened if they do manage to escape successfully. In many cases, victims are trafficked across different states of the country and do not speak the local language of the area in which they are being held. As a result, they do not know where to seek help, or what to say when they find it. In some cases, the local police are aware of the illegal sex trade and turn a blind eye to it, often ignoring or downplaying the victim’s complaints, or in some extreme cases - dropping her back to the brothel leading to her being eventually tortured and abused more for having the audacity to report them. Many who try to escape find it more dangerous to be in an alien place all by themselves as opposed to the red light area, and end up returning voluntarily.

Although the occurrence of victims leaving the sex work industry with the traffickers or brothel manager’s knowledge or consent is extremely rare, it does happen. In cases where the victim is unable to satisfy the customers anymore, has contracted an incurable STD, or is not proving to be profitable, they are evicted from the brothels but not without being retold the horrors of what would come to them and their families if they were to report the traffickers to authorities.

According to a study by Terrese des Hommes focussed on Nepalese women who are trafficked to parts of Mumbai and Kolkata, formerly trafficked women are often sent back to their original villages in order to recruit or traffic a new set of girls. They are offered incentives for the same in the form of gold or money. They are expected to use a portion of this money to entice young women to join them in the city under the pretext of being a ‘performer’ or ‘entertainer’ and are given a free pass to use force as well.

Recently, brothel raids are being conducted on a large scale across the country by police and NGOs. These are the victims that are sent to rehabilitation homes run by NGOs. While the idea of rehabilitation homes gives a fine and dandy image, they are not devoid of certain institutional flaws, especially in cases of child sex trade victims. According to the Juvenile Justice Act, rescued survivors are placed in police custody until they can be presented before a judicial magistrate, who then decides whether they should be returned home or taken to a rehabilitation home. Oftentimes, survivors are sent to a rehabilitation home just to be held there long enough to testify against their traffickers. In this case, a Child Welfare Committee manages the child’s case and decides where they should be held. A glaring flaw in this approach is that the very incentive of rehabilitation is not really to make the victims better, but to keep them somewhere till they are useful for investigations and court proceedings against the traffickers. Additionally, members of the Child Welfare Committee are often elected by politicians and can hence be underqualified or inexperienced with regards to looking after the welfare of the child. Infrastructure and compensation for members of CWC are far from sufficient, leading to a diversion from the intended path to meeting the best interests of the child.

Even some of the sensible policies and processes that NGOs and rehabilitation organisations are made to follow come with their set of loopholes that take away from their very purpose. For example, most Rehabilitation Organisations (ROs) are required to conduct a family identification process wherein they travel to a survivor’s home to see if the family is fit for being re-integrated with the survivor. They intend to check if the family is capable of economically and psychologically supporting the wellbeing of the survivor. This proves to be very helpful in cases where families believe that being pushed into sex work has made their daughter ‘impure’ or ‘unworthy’ rather than a victim of abuse who needs rehabilitation. In such cases, after being reunited with the families, victims bear the brunt of more emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a result of having been a sex worker. ROs are required to report their findings of the family’s condition to the Child Welfare Committee who then decides whether the survivor should be sent back. However, at any point, the court can order a victim to be sent home, regardless of the findings of the NGO. This defeats the very purpose of the family identification system and ends up posing a threat to the victim’s mental health.

This is just the legal side of the flaws in the RO system. There are multiple issues with the RO system that make us wonder whether they really are working towards nothing but making the lives of the victim’s better. According to a study by Robynne Locke focussing on 7 rehabilitation homes, many ignored problems with the RO system came to light. It was found that most ROs were not providing much more than basic necessities of food and shelter, and the occasional craft activities. They failed to recognise that sexual abuse and trafficking victims have special needs including but not limited to therapy and vocational training or mentorship, both of which were barely provided or not provided entirely. Additionally, the voices, opinions or suggestions of the rescued victims were never taken or paid heed to, with regards to the functioning and facilities of the RO.

It was also found that ROs lacked necessary privacy policies in place. Donors or news reporters were allowed to ‘observe’ the rescued victims whenever they wanted, without the victims’ permission. This is the last thing someone who has already had their privacy and body violated needs.

As for the institutions that do focus on psychosocial rehabilitation, they make it their sole area of focus and do not address challenges of familial and community reintegration or a lack of livelihood opportunities and how the survivors can overcome these inevitable hurdles.

Therefore, we can evidently conclude that the system is defective, but our society is not far behind.

While there are undeniably a lot more flaws in the rehabilitation laws and practices followed by CWC members and members of NGOs and ROs, these flaws alone do not account for a large number of children and women that voluntarily return to brothels after being rescued. So, why is it that women and young girls rescued from their abusers go right back to them?

They are treated as if their abduction and trade was their fault, as if the sexual abuse they faced multiple times a day was not enough.

Even after rescue and rehabilitation, the incidence of victims reintegrating with their families and communities has been low mainly due to social stigma and discrimination. Returning survivors often face rejection, discrimination, harassment, and in extreme cases - rape or honour killings. They are treated as if their abduction and trade was their fault, as if the sexual abuse they faced multiple times a day was not enough. Additionally, HIV/AIDS and prostitution have come to be so heavily linked that returning survivors are often blindly assumed to have HIV/AIDS, leading to twice the stigmatisation. The lack of sex education in the country leads them to believe that the touch or even the stare of an infected person can give them HIV/AIDS, which only adds to the abuse and discrimination that returning survivors face in the community. Even in many cases where they were able to reunite with their families without any problems and got married, they would be thrown out of the husband’s house if he found out about their past.

In some cases, victims have had psychosocial rehabilitation with the help of NGOs and ROs while living with their families. Even in these cases, rehabilitation workers find that while they are able to ensure the healing and safety of the victim within the four walls of RO, they have little control over what the victim’s experiences in the outside world. The progress of the individual in therapy is often set back by the stigmatisation and abuse they face at home. Consequently, the work often takes a lot more time and patience. Something which many victims do not have, and end up returning to the brothels because they are fed up and frustrated with the slow rate of their condition and mental health betterment, all while not earning as much as they did while being a sex worker or while being paid to look over and recruit other girls for sex work.

No matter where their life leads them, it would all eventually boil down to their past as a sex worker, and the fact that it wasn’t voluntary would not reduce the degree of stigmatisation. Due to this stigma, many survivors of trafficking find that they have no option but to return to the brothels and live a life of more self-respect and equality than in their communities. There is indeed nothing sadder than a girl feeling safer in a place that sexually abuses her for its own benefit, than in her own family.


Nayomi is a second-year chemistry student. She aspires to become a researcher in the field of cognitive science and pharmaceutics and is extremely passionate about reading and writing. Her Instagram handle is @nayo.nnaise.