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A Push Factor for Trafficking: Gender-Based Violence

May 25, 2022

By Shruti Patil

Gender-based violence (GBV) and trafficking in persons (TIP) are commonly treated as separate crimes, but there are strong intersections between them, and an incomplete understanding of their connection has led to inadequate services for victims in South Asia. Gender-based violence is often at the root of vulnerability to trafficking. It can force women to leave abusive homes on risky journeys with few resources. A new study by The Asia Foundation explores the interconnections between GBV and TIP and argues that understanding how they are linked can improve victims’ access to justice and rehabilitation. This article, drawn from that study, discusses some of the findings from India and suggests some strategies for optimizing services for victims of GBV and TIP.

Inaccurate estimation of the magnitude of the problem

India’s fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), recently released, reveals that nearly one-third of Indian women have suffered physical or sexual violence. While the report notes a decline in domestic violence, it also notes that 6 percent of women in the 18–49 age group have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and 30 percent have experienced at least one episode of physical violence since the age of 15. The NFHS-5 data also shows that just 14 percent of women subjected to physical or sexual violence report those episodes to the authorities.

In terms of trafficking, India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) registers thousands of cases each year, but NGOs and watchdog organizations believe that these numbers reflect severe underreporting, a primary reason being the widespread misclassification of TIP victims as missing persons. Covid-19 has compounded the difficulty of identifying TIP victims due to changes in trafficking corridors and hotspots, a spike in unsafe internal migration, diversion of police personnel to Covid-19 duties, mobility restrictions that limit women’s ability to report crimes, and other factors. Although the NCRB reported a significant drop in TIP victims from 2019 to 2020, other data shows that the pandemic increased vulnerability to trafficking, and NGOs and the media have reported a sharp rise in TIP cases.

Service delivery centers are few, far between, and resource poor

The Asia Foundation has created an interactive map of three important government schemes that provide services to victims of GBV and TIP—One Stop Crisis Centers (OSCCs), Ujjwala Homes, and Swadhar Grehs. We found that they are overwhelmingly located in urban areas. None of the 702 OSCCs, just 53 of the 365 Swadhar Grehs, and just 14 of the 117 Ujjwala Homes are located in rural areas. As the map vividly illustrates, service locations are also geographically far apart. This distribution puts crisis support or long-term care effectively out of reach for victims of GBV and TIP in remote or rural areas. And service centers face a chronic lack of reliable, long-term funding to support routine operations and retain trained personnel. The service delivery ecosystem must be refashioned to match the scale of the problem, and the distribution of services should reflect the number and pattern of crimes and the shifting hotspots and corridors of illegal movement.

Insufficient understanding of the intersections between GBV and TIP

Gender-based violence and trafficking in persons have many intersections. The new Asia Foundation study, Optimizing Screening and Support Services for Gender-Based Violence and Trafficking in Persons Victims, made possible by a grant from the U.S. State Department, examines this intersectionality between gender-based violence and trafficking in persons in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Based on key informant interviews with victims, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, shelter providers, government agencies, and civil society organizations, the study contributes to the emerging conversation about overcoming the compartmentalization of services for these two intersecting crimes.

Factors that can make a person vulnerable to trafficking—poverty, lack of work, debt-based coercion, and other circumstances—can become a crisis when victims are forced to flee domestic abuse. The physical and emotional trauma of GBV increases victims’ vulnerability, which traffickers often exploit. It is also important to remember that all victims of trafficking are also victims of GBV, including during recruitment, transportation (if the victim is moved), and confinement. When service providers on the front lines of screening and service delivery fail to fully understand these intersections, it leads to three consequences:

  1. Many highly vulnerable and at-risk individuals remain unidentified.
  2. Cases of TIP are incorrectly reported, foreclosing avenues of legal redress for survivors.
  3. Rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors is less effective.

Is integration of services a solution?

Improving screening and identification of victims is the first step. First responders must be trained to identify indicators of GBV and how these put people at risk of trafficking. Law enforcement personnel in particular need to recognize and record the nuances of each victim’s experience, including the multiple counts of violence that they may have suffered, to build the case for legal action and unlock a wider pool of relief services.

The scarcity of human and financial resources and the current disjointed approach to GBV and TIP will require the entire ecosystem of services to seek greater efficiency. Integrating services in shared locations could be a pragmatic first step to make the best of the resources available. A working model of this kind of integrated service delivery can be seen in the Sakhi One-Stop Crisis Centers for women affected by violence.

Practitioners are divided, however, over whether integration of GBV and TIP services is the right step. Some maintain that the separation of services is important for victims who need specialized care. Others recommend a hybrid model that combines, for example, legal services, psychosocial counseling, and livelihood training under one roof, but keeps medical and shelter services separate.

The Asia Foundation study provides an empirical framework for policymakers, law enforcement, and service providers to address the intersectionality of abuses that TIP and GBV victims experience. It offers tools to better identify victims of TIP and GBV, maximize the utilization of limited resources, and devise new ways to provide optimal, victim-centered care. Unpacking the intersectionality between GBV and TIP is the first step towards a service delivery system that truly understands and responds to victims’ needs.

Read the new Asia Foundation report, Optimizing Screening and Support Services for Gender-Based Violence and Trafficking in Persons Victims.

Shruti Patil is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in India. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality


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