School for Justice was founded in April this year to truly liberate victims of child prostitution by providing them with a legal education to pursue justice for the crimes committed against them. The precedent-setting initiative was launched by Dutch anti-trafficking group, Free A Girl, and advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, and has an initial cohort of 19 students. I interviewed Director, Evelien Hölsken, to find out about the scale of sex trafficking in India, the motivation behind the project, and its long term aims.
- Child prostitution in India is a serious problem. Can you give me an idea of its significance and scale?
While it is difficult to know the extent of child prostitution given the clandestine nature of the industry, estimates suggest there are around 1.2 million children forced into prostitution in India every day.
- Why ‘School for Justice’? What was the driving force behind this particular initiative?
As mentioned there are an estimated 1.2 million children forced into prostitution every day. However, in 2015 there were only 55 convictions. This number shows that in India, people involved in child prostitution, including traffickers, brothel owners, pimps and customers are rarely punished. A lack of specialised lawyers with in-depth knowledge about human trafficking and child prostitution is a big part of the problem. Due to this gap in the justice system most offenders are allowed to continue committing crimes. To put an end to this injustice and to take the offenders off the streets, we launched the School for Justice. It is important to raise awareness about child prostitution and the culture of impunity in India.
- How does the programme work?
It is an educational programme that enables students with different levels of education to participate. For example, if a girl comes in at level 10, we will start the pre-university training to get them up to the level 12 that is needed for acceptance into university. When the girls study, they do that at a university where they join the standard programme like any other Indian student. After completing their bachelor’s degree they will obtain the title Bachelor of Law, with a special focus on Commercial Sexual Exploitation cases. If they continue and follow a master education for two years they will have a Master of Law. However, the School for Justice only offers the Bachelor of Law education at the moment.
- School for Justice is crowdfunded. Why did you decide to source financial support from the public? Why do you think this is important?
People in India are aware of human trafficking and the situation in the brothels. However, they don’t see it as their problem or responsibility to stand up against it. Whilst sexual violence has become an issue on the agenda, little attention is paid to the problem of child prostitution. The girls working in brothels are often viewed as inferior and as so-called ‘bad’ low-caste girls by society. The public sentiment is that at least the young girls are able to work as opposed to living on the streets. Society ignores the violence that is perpetrated against these girls and the countless rapes that they suffer on a daily basis. The public is often unaware that most girls are trafficked, have not consented to the so-called ‘work’, and are not paid for it. Girls that are forced into prostitution become severely traumatised and often suffer from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and illnesses. With our awareness raising campaign we will start a conversation in India about the impunity surrounding child prostitution.
- The young women you work with have described not feeling truly ‘free’ while the perpetrators of the crimes that have been committed against them remain unpunished, which shows how devastating the problem really is. In the course of developing the programme, what have you learnt about the psychological impact of child prostitution on survivors?
The students of the School for Justice have completed trauma counselling. However there is always after care for the rescued girls. The students receive medical and psychological support. We don’t want to rush the trauma counselling stage. Therefore there is a counsellor available for the students, who they can contact whenever needed.
- School For Justice is clearly a ground-breaking initiative that is engaging every sector of society. Once the women on your programme qualify, you will lobby the government to enable them to become public prosecutors. Do you anticipate resistance from authorities such as the government? If so, how do you hope to tackle this?
To make the School for Justice successful we need the support of the public and the government. If these girls completed their LLB they should have the same chances as any other graduate, so we don’t expect resistance from the government.
- It’s still a struggle for many women in India to access any kind of education. Are you hopeful that your programme will send a wider message about the value of providing women with education and training?
We hope that with this project the students can inspire other girls and women who come from poor or difficult backgrounds. We also hope it will inspire other organizations to enable women and girls to study.
- School for Justice is still quite a young programme. What is your vision for it in five, ten, twenty years’ time?
We hope to open more projects in other countries or maybe even more in India. We want to support girls to get justice everywhere around the world. Also, we hope that there is a change in thinking in India. That people will realise that girls who are forced into prostitution should not be blamed, and that they will support them in their journey to freedom and justice.