Freedom for Sex Slaves: Creating Impact through Philanthropy


Sindhura Chakravarty


Over the past few years, the focus of international organizations on anti-trafficking efforts seems to have shifted from sex trafficking to forced labor. However, since 53 per cent of global human trafficking victims are being sexually exploited (as per UN’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2014), modern slavery can only be eradicated if stakeholders, including the government, non-profits and philanthropists, work together to address issues of both sex-trafficking and bonded labor.

The Nature of the Beast: What is Sexual Slavery?

Though it is difficult to find accurate data around sex trafficking due to its clandestine nature, it is estimated that sexual slavery is a reality for over 16 million girls across India. Siddharth Kara, in his book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, states that sex slaves form the backbone of one of the world’s most profitable illicit enterprises generating annual net profit margins of up to 70 per cent. Even Google (one of the most profitable companies in the world) recorded a net profit margin of 21.8 per cent in 2015.

Kara notes that sex slaves are typically acquired in the following ways: deceit; sale by family members; seduction; recruitment by former slaves; or abduction. Girls from poor, vulnerable sections of Indian society or migrant populations are particularly vulnerable to these enticements, primarily because they are desperate to either escape absolute destitution, domestic violence or similarly oppressive conditions. In captivity, these women are subjected to extreme levels of brutality, starvation and innumerable rapes until they submit to engaging in sex for money. Even if, by some stroke of luck, victims of sex trafficking manage to escape the clutches of their traffickers, they are often forced back into sex work, due to the absence of alternate employment options.

The Invisible Girls: A Failure of the Indian Legal System

Globally, commercial sexual exploitation is an organized crime that, according to ILO’s report Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor, 2014, generates profits of USD 100 billion and India is a source, destination and transit country for such activities. This success is due to increasing demands for cheap sex, the ease of procuring sex slaves and the complete apathy of the Indian criminal justice system to the plight of these women. Sex slaves are subjected to systematic abuse, incarceration, brutal rapes and murder (either directly or indirectly through exposure to STDs). Ironically, laws against each of these crimes individually (i.e. rape and murder) are far stricter and better enforced than the laws against sex trafficking.

Despite having signed and ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the Indian government has consistently failed to address the large scale, cross-regional issue of human trafficking. The current regulatory regime against human trafficking in India is fragmented, unsophisticated and badly implemented. That being said, most forms of sex trafficking are criminalized under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 (ITPA). Though the statute has been criticized for equating voluntary sex workers with victims of sexual exploitation and for penalizing solicitation, it does set out a robust legal framework against sex traffickers. However, based on interviews conducted by Dasra, it is apparent police authorities do not prioritize trafficking as an offence and typically do not enforce regulations against traffickers. Key reasons for police apathy include: (i) lack of awareness and sensitization around sex trafficking issues; (ii) regressive attitudes towards gender violence; (iii) bribes from sex traffickers to supplement their insubstantial wages. Consequently, the police often warn off traffickers about raids being planned and turn a blind eye to, or even participate in, the sexual exploitation of these women.

Interventions that Work

Dasra’s analysis indicates that non-profits working to prevent, protect and rehabilitate victims, prosecute perpetrators and promote partnerships between non-profits in the sector are most likely to have an impact on the ground. High potential interventions include: (i) establishing community watchdogs to create awareness and reduce vulnerability; (ii) training and sensitization of government agencies; (iii) providing livelihood options to past victims; and (iv) rescuing victims, providing counseling and legal support. A detailed discussion of Indian non-profits engaged in effective interventions is available in Dasra’s report Zero Traffick available here –

Funding Wisely: Going the Extra Mile
Strategic philanthropy can help scale-up anti-sex trafficking efforts in India. Hence, we urge philanthropists to join the fight against sex trafficking by: (i) engaging more closely with the non-profits they are funding; (ii) having a greater understanding of the relevant program’s expected targets and results; and (iii) heeding the voices of the sex-trafficking victims themselves (through interactions or research). It is also important to sponsor collaborations between non-profits working against sex-trafficking across India to spread knowledge, promote collective advocacy to shape law and policy and allow anti-sex trafficking efforts to achieve national scale.

Sindhura Chakravarty is an associate at Dasra’s advisory research team.

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