‘Prison would’ve been better’: women cry foul over celebrated Indian charity

Trafficked women and sex workers claim they were beaten and forced to do unpaid work at centres run by an NGO that has received backing from donors including the UN

 

She was snatched from the streets of Hyderabad last year in broad daylight, three strangers tugging her hair and grabbing her tightly by the throat, she says.

They locked her in a compound 45 miles away, ringed with electric fencing. Repeatedly but unsuccessfully, she implored them to let her call her family.

For about a year, she says, her captors made her sew and clean bathrooms for money that she never received. She grew distraught, and after several months self-harmed.

The story would sound familiar to many trafficking survivors. Except that her alleged tormentors were not a criminal gang but an NGO that, praised by celebrities and humanitarians worldwide, claims to have saved thousands of women and girls from sexual slavery since the 90s.

The woman, who is a sex worker, was allegedly snatched by a team consisting of police and staff from the anti-trafficking organisation Prajwala, which has received hundreds of thousands of pounds from major donors including the US government and the UN.

The unpaid work she was forced to do was part of what Prajwala calls a “life skills” programme, which the charity describes as part of its “rescue and rehabilitation” strategy.

The woman, who requested anonymity, finds the idea that she was rescued preposterous. “It would have been better to be in prison, at least you can meet with your family there,” she says.

Prajwala is among the organisations running more than 150 shelters in India, where thousands of women and girls deemed survivors of trafficking are incarcerated by court order each year under a draconian anti-prostitution law.

Sunitha Krishnan, Prajwala’s leader, has won numerous international awards. In 2009, she featured on a list of anti-trafficking heroes compiled by the US state department. In June, a panel including actor George Clooney awarded her $30,000 (£23,401) at the Aurora prize for humanitarian workheld in Armenia.

But interviews with sex workers, activists, outreach workers and police paint a picture of life inside Prajwala’s secretive shelters very much at odds with the one Krishnan has presented to the world

Former detainees describe an atmosphere of fear and despair, where those who rebel against their detention are beaten, and where there is virtually no contact with the outside world. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common at the shelter, they say.

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/nov/23/prison-better-women-cry-foul-over-celebrated-indian-charity

 

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