Imphal: Human trafficking, which is the third largest organised crime violating basic human rights, is rampant in Northeast India with no comprehensive law to tackle with it. In a quick conversation with EastMojo, Prof Ajailiu Niumai — a potent voice against women trafficking — highlights the factors responsible for the prevalence of the menace in the region and shares her own experiences in tackling the issue.
Prof Niumai is currently teaching at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, University of Hyderabad. She specialises on the sociology of gender, particularly on the trafficking of girls and women in Northeast India. She has been vigorously fighting against human trafficking for the past 11 years.
Excerpts from an interview:
EastMojo: Tell us about your first encounter with human trafficking. How did you deal with it?
Ajailiu Niumai: My first encounter with trafficking was in 2008. On the day I was supposed to board my flight back to Hyderabad after spending my vacation in Manipur, I was approached by a lady at the Imphal airport who asked me to help her sister. I was informed that her sister was boarding the aircraft for the first time in her life and, therefore, she wanted me to intervene and help her out.
I asked about the description of her sister and looked out for her till the first layer of the security was over; however, I wasn’t able to find her. So, I went out again after explaining to the security and found that the lady was outside along with another lady and a man. I informed the lady that I couldn’t find her and later asked her sister’s travel destination and her flight name. To my surprise, I was told that her sister was travelling to Singapore as a housemaid to an Indian diaspora Punjabi family home.
The moment I said, ‘be careful’, the man standing beside them asked me with a very hostile body language, ‘So what do you do in Hyderabad’? So, I interpreted in my mind his statement as saying what calibre and influences did I have to intervene and help these girls. Since that incident, I began to think about what I could do or contribute to as an academician.
EM: Have you participated in any rescue missions?
AN: Yes, I have. A year ago, I got a call from a group who needed my help. During the course of my intervention, I found out that the girls whom the police rescued from the Thai Tantra Spa in Hyderabad for engaging in illegal activities were mostly from the Northeast region. They were kept at the Prajwala Rescue home, managed by a well-known award-winning activist Sunita Krishnan. Such cases are not simple, rather it’s more complicated as the police, NGOs and court cases are involved. As I had to follow the protocol and law of the land, it took three months for me to get them (survivors) out from the shelter home and reunite with their parents.
EM: There are reports that survivors and their clients develop a relationship in due course of time. How do you deal with such cases?
AN: In one of my rescue missions, I received a call from a man who claimed to be a client of one of the survivors from Manipur. The man told me that he had developed a relationship with Rita (name changed) and he wanted to marry her since she was carrying his baby. So, this kind of personal relationship that these girls developed with their clients was also problematic for us when we tried to reintegrate them with their parents.
EM: Given the social stigma still prevalent in our society, how do the survivors’ families react over their girls getting involved in such illegal activities?
AN: When an integration issue comes after a rescue, the parents of the survivors in Manipur particularly feel guilty or accountable for what has happened to their children. So, when the police and NGOs inform the family after rescuing the survivors, the family come with empathy and embrace the survivors with 100%. At the same time, there are some families who hide the identities of survivors because of social stigma.
EM: Tell us one of your most heart-wrenching experiences during the rescue mission.
AN: I have come across so many heart-wrenching experiences and also witnessed some of the girls who have gone through traumatic experiences in their life. I remember one of the girls from our region, who was trafficked by a local agent in Jaipur. She got an infection on both hands because she was made to clean toilets with her bare hands. After that, she wasn’t able to eat with her hands and her friends helped to feed her.
EM: What are the main factors for human trafficking in the Northeast region?
AN: Northeast is a source of trafficking and a transit point of trafficking rather than being a destination. Factors include poverty, lack of infrastructure and ethnic conflicts — some of the reasons why people are pushed out. There is a push and pull theory. Means of livelihood is scarce and there is a lack of good and affordable educational institutions. Some of the good educational institutions in the Northeast are very expensive for poor families. So when agents, who are involved in trafficking, approach the parents and lure them in the pretence of giving free quality education to their kids in metro cities, the parents fall for them. Also, parents have the best of interests for their children.