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Stills from Understanding Trafficking

Infochange News & Features, June 2009


The nuances of human trafficking
By Rina Mukherji

Understanding Trafficking stresses the difference between women who migrate and join the sex trade and women who are trafficked into the sex trade Interpol


estimates human trafficking of women and young girls to be a $1 billion global industry that continues to grow year after year. It is a trade that feeds on the miseries of the world’s poor, and the ravages wrought by death and destruction.

Yet it is wrong to classify all women who make it to the world’s oldest profession as victims of trafficking. That’s what filmmaker and journalist Ananya Chatterjee-Chakraborti’s film Understanding Trafficking seeks to convey.

Using the metaphor of Sita (of the Ramayana) who stepped out of her bounds and got whisked away by the forces of evil, the filmmaker attempts to go beyond the figures to understand the social milieu that causes women from Nepal, India and Bangladesh to be trafficked across international borders in eastern India.

The filmmaker stresses the important distinction between migration and trafficking. Focusing on the former, she points out that migration by both rich and poor for better prospects has always existed and will always exist. Nations must recognise this and formulate an appropriate policy to deal with it. Lack of such a policy in Nepal has opened the floodgates of corruption in that country, while sending countless women migrants to their doom.

The hilly, landlocked country of Nepal has very little land available for agriculture. Indeed, agriculture in these parts can never be supported through small landholdings. Women are keen to migrate and must do so to support their families. However, the absence of a clear-cut policy forces them into the clutches of unscrupulous traffickers out to make a fast buck. Consequently, there are between 200,000 and 250,000 Nepalese women in Indian brothels, and a sizeable number catering to the tourism industry in Kathmandu. The existence of a very long border, much of which is in rural, sparsely populated Bihar, is a godsend for both migrants and traffickers.  
Once a woman enters the sex trade, there is no looking back. But their entry into the trade is not their worst experience. Raids to “rescue” the women are the worst. When the police raid a brothel, the women are hounded out in various stages of undress. They are then bundled onto the first plane to Nepal; from there on, flashbulbs and the media follow them. Scant regard is paid to what the women want. One rescued woman tells us: “When we landed in Kathmandu there were flashbulbs all over. We did not want people here to know what we had been through in India. Our families are here, you see. But rather than pay heed to our concerns, the media had our faces on every newspaper in town.”

The initiatives of women’s organisations in Nepal that have set up watch and have started registering migrating women as they cross the border has been filmed well. As has a similar exercise in West Bengal, undertaken through panchayats and the local police, which has been in operation for over a year.

Understanding Trafficking exposes the routes through which trafficking takes place. The research and interviews with women in Nepal and India are well-handled. So is the training being imparted to these “fallen women” in sports like football and the arts to help rehabilitate them into the mainstream.

The same cannot be said of Bangladesh.

Poverty causes many Bangladeshi women into the sex trade when they cross the border into India in search of work. Once they enter the profession they are able to return only if they are “rescued” under an Indo-Bangladeshi initiative.

The story in India is not very different from those of countless others who are lured into the sex trade when they venture out to earn a living. There are, in fact, certain communities like the Beria that think nothing of exploiting their daughters for a steady income. Little girls are exposed to the basics of dealing with clients and then gradually groomed to attend to their needs. The film highlights the plight of Beria girls and their struggle to leave this traditional occupation behind. One Beria girl sought the help of her friends and the West Bengal Commission for Women and was subsequently rescued from Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district.

Except for a few minor lapses that leave the viewer unsure of what the filmmaker is trying to say -- like the opening sequences that deal with the migration of well-heeled educated women who wish to migrate in search of better opportunities -- the film is thorough and arguably the first to stress the need to allow migration and migrants whilst, at the same time, pulling out all the stops to prevent human trafficking.

(Rina Mukherji is a Kolkata-based journalist)  
Infochange News & Features, June 2009

The Statesman

A peek into untold misery

Understanding Trafficking
Rating ****

One of the highlights of the film is the wonderful rehabilitation programme for trafficking victims. A review by Shoma A Chatterji

Who is a good woman? Who is a bad woman? What measuring rod do we use to categorize a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ woman? Who creates this measuring rod? Why? Was Sita a ‘bad’ woman because she crossed the Lakshman Rekha to offer alms to Ravana who came in a beggar’s disguise to her hut in the forest? These metaphorical questions get raised repeatedly in Ananya Chatterjee-Chakraborti’s Understanding Trafficking which recently premiered in the city. From the time since Sita crossed the rigid Lakshman Rekha, all Indian women till today, are conditioned by the invisible Lakshman Rekha, censoring their own spaces of resistance, growth, mobility and social roles. They are either stopped from crossing all the Lakshman Rekhas that govern their lives, or they are ostracized by their families, societies, institutions and places of work if they dare to cross any of them.

Eighty-nine minutes is rather long for a serious documentary on one of the ugliest realities of life like trafficking. But Understanding Trafficking does not drag because it embarks on a long journey of shocking discoveries about the tragic reality of trafficking where girls are made to cross the Lakshman Rekhas by physical force, by diabolic manipulation, sometimes, even by their parents and close ones to be sold like cattle in the flesh markets of Nepal, Bangladesh and India. Are these girls ‘bad’? Or are they ‘good’? Chatterjee-Chakraborti’s film drives us to redefine the implications of what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mean for these tragic victims. The film tracks the trade across Nepal, Bangladesh and West Bengal in India, through interviews with NGO workers, victims of trafficking, victims who have been rescued and rehabilitated, some pimps and agents who pretend to be social activists and some women who head official organizations working to stop trafficking and rescue innocent victims from this illegal cattle-trading.

“Ever since I began to make films, in 1991, I have wanted to make a film on trafficking. I would like to extend this project both geographically and deeper in its present form. The project was part of competition floated by IAWRT (International Association for Women in Radio and Television) over three years ago. I won that competition along with two other international film makers. It was funded by FOKUS, which stand for women and child welfare, Norway,” says Ananya about how this film got made. “I called it Understanding Trafficking because it was a process not just to show a few victims, but to understand the process and the politics of trafficking and migration,” she adds.

The film opens with some graphics and then focusses on a Farah Gherda, a young girl studying in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, planning to go abroad to pursue her interests in professional photography. She has the backing of her parents to seek fresh pastures. She is distanced from the Lakshman Rekha. Or may be, she is not even aware of its existence. But she is one of the lucky few among the millions of little girls who do not have choices to make. The film tries to underline the differences between sex work and trafficking, migration and trafficking, etc. One of the highlights of the film is a wonderful rehabilitation programme for trafficking victims ventured into by Jabala, an NGO that works on prevention and rehabilitation of trafficking victims. They regularly organise football camps for the girls.

Responding to what made her go back to the mythological allusions to the Lakshman Rekha, Ananya says, “Usually trafficking victims are handled with a welfare approach. This means that a perception of women as weak and vulnerable who need protection and therefore, should not venture out is reinforced. There is always an effort to ensure that women do not migrate for work, as they might get trafficked. This results in limiting the women from exploiting her full potential. If a girl does get trafficked, it becomes extremely difficult for her to reintegrate herself into the mainstream because the tendency is always to blame her for crossing the line. But as a feminist, I feel there should be no such man-made boundaries to define or confine women. I also feel that it is the duty of every citizen to help her get reintegrated even if she gets trafficked. She should be free to pursue her dreams and aspirations. The graphics are done by Anirban Ghosh. I used Sita’s story because religious texts can make a deep impacts in shaping social values and psyches.”

Stills from Understanding Trafficking


Posted: Thursday , Apr 30, 2009 at 0306 hrs IST


Ananya Chatterjee Chakraborti’s latest project, Understanding Trafficking, is in keeping with her feministic world view

When did feminism become a bad word? When exactly did women start distrusting the school of thought that brought a semblance of equality to our society? Probably when complacency with gender issues set in, feels filmmaker-activist Ananya Chatterjee Chakraborti. “I think a lot of women are okay with the status quo. We feel that because there is apparent equality in the society, we needn’t ruffle feathers,” says Chakraborti who screened her latest documentary, Understanding Trafficking last Monday at the Max Mueller Bhavan.

Chakraborti, as evident, has no qualms about being called a feminist. In fact, she celebrates the tag. “I’m proud to be a feminist, I have no shame in calling myself one,” she declares. Which is probably why most of her films are brazenly feministic. Case in point being her latest project, Understanding Trafficking, an exploration of woman trafficking in the sub-continent. The film is not just a cautionary tale about the plight of women who have been removed from comforts of their sanctuaries. “Women have for centuries been discouraged to cross the line, to remain indoors, and within limits. So what happens if a woman does cross the line? By circumstances, through need, or just by a desire to dare the magical line?” asks Chakraborti.

Chakraborti’s earlier works talked about varied issues like the role and status of women in the Uttarakhand movement (Uttaradhikar) and training of women to counter sexual harassment in the workplace (The Politics of Silence). But Woman trafficking is an issue that seems to have made a deep impact. “I can make at least three more films on the issue. We all presume that most trafficked women end up being prostitutes, but there are many who end up as domestic servants too. I want to talk about these women,” says Chakraborti.

The fact that her film will only reach a select few through special screenings such as the one in Max Mueller Bhavan irks Chakraborti. “We should have a permanent slot in television channels for films that talk about such issues,” she sums up.