“Pay”: Indian victims of trafficking left in misery because of delays in compensation

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After being sexually trafficked as a 16-year-old girl, Malika hoped government compensation would get her back on her feet – but the young mother is now unemployed, living on the streets and 200,000 Indian rupees ($ 2,727) in debt.

Despite receiving 150,000 rupees in compensation in 2019, Malika is among thousands of women survivors of trafficking, sexual assault and acid attacks awaiting payment since the COVID-19 pandemic began. hit last year.

“We live in an open area with a plastic tarp over our heads,” the 20-year-old mother of two, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her makeshift shelter in West Bengal in India. State.

“I asked for compensation from the victims to build a better life, but I live a terrible life instead,” she said, adding that her husband had traveled to look for odd jobs, leaving her with the children. who were still getting sick.

Malika said creditors regularly harass her to repay loans she took to feed her children, but when compensation arrives, she won’t even write off her debts.

There were over 400,000 cases of crimes against women and girls in 2019, according to government data, with sexual assault, rape and domestic violence being the most common.

India has a compensation program for women and girls who survive sexual assault, acid attacks and trafficking, but only a fraction receives compensation due to poor awareness of the program and poor knowledge of the program. heavy burden of proof required, according to studies.

Government data shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows that more than 12,000 women and girls survivors of these crimes were waiting for their compensation claims to be assessed in January, up from around 11,000 in 2019.

The West Bengal State Legal Services Authority, which is responsible for paying compensation to survivors like Malika, had “run out of funds in March 2020 and only had 5,000 rupees in the account,” said its member secretary Raju Mukherjee.

“We couldn’t do anything, make no payments,” said Mukherjee, whose state has among the largest number of survivors of trafficking in India. “But we have recently received funding (…) and are now trying to speed up the process.”

NO MONEY

Women’s rights activists have long complained that the compensation regime is too slow, with survivors waiting years to testify in court to determine the amount of their reward, while state authorities often lack funding. funds.

This tedious process was exacerbated during the pandemic, said Ashok Jain, member secretary of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), the umbrella body for all state-level authorities that make payments to survivors.

With courts operating at limited capacity, survivors unable to travel to keep up with cases and the priority shifting to contain the pandemic, compensation claims were not approved and money was not dispersed, said legal aid officials.

“Many acid attack survivors had to stop their ongoing treatment during the pandemic because no compensation was coming,” said Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator of Acid Survivors and the Women Welfare Foundation.

Partial compensation must be paid within 15 days of approval of the request, Chaudhuri said, adding that the need for the money was most urgent in the early days, especially for medical treatment.

NALSA said the monies offered take into account the severity of the trauma, physical damage, medical costs, loss of education, employment and the survivor’s financial situation.

Frustrated that one of his clients – a child who had been sexually abused – waited two years for 40,000 rupees in compensation, lawyer Zishaan Iskandari filed a petition in Delhi High Court last June during a foreclosure two months.

“It was a migrant family who literally lived hand to mouth and couldn’t even return to their village,” said Iskandari, who provides legal aid to the charity HAQ Center for Child Rights.

“It has been two years since compensation was awarded and I have had at least 25 similar cases. It took a court order for the Delhi Legal Services Authority to release the money within 48 hours.

In all states, lawyers and charities have said that routine checks by legal services authorities before approving a compensation claim are a slow process that was all but halted during the pandemic, cash flow of the state being severely affected.

“The survivors … are often from the most marginalized communities. How can you tell them there is no money? asked Iskandari.

“TO PAY”

While COVID-19 infections and deaths have declined since their peak in September, coronavirus cases are on the rise in India, which has recorded more than 160,000 deaths – the fourth highest in the world after the United States, Brazil and Mexico.

Survivor networks have urged state governments to step up their support during the pandemic as stigma makes it even harder for survivors to get jobs or financial assistance amid massive job losses.

“Very few (of survivors) know about the compensation program and apply for it,” said Ram Mohan, secretary of the anti-trafficking charity HELP, which supports survivors, mainly poor women and children attracted to it. promises of work.

“Those who do, wait forever. But the wait during the pandemic was probably the longest for many as there were no jobs and no other source of income. “

The hardships suffered by survivors during the pandemic have prompted new calls for reform of the compensation system, with women’s rights activists calling for faster and more generous payments.

“Survivors are increasingly aware and claiming their rights,” said Amina Khatun Laskar, secretary of the anti-trafficking NGO Bansra Birangana Seva Samity.

“The system does not support them. They cannot afford these delays and (states) must pay. “

($ 1 = 73.3510 Indian rupees)

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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