Liberty Aldrich, director of gender-based violence programmes at the Center for Court Innovation, New York, has offered wide-ranging suggestions on development and implementation of ways to combat violence against women, sexual assault and human trafficking.
She spoke to Metro in Calcutta this week on her first trip to the country.
What is your impression about gender-related violence in India, especially Bengal?
Gender-based violence is a big issue here right now. I was reading in the newspaper about the rapes and female homicide and of course the Delhi rape. It’s a tragedy but an opportunity to increase discussion and commitment to preventing future incidents.
For somebody working on gender-based violence, Bengal is not unique but there is an incredible amount of attention being paid based on violence against women in India. That is because the conscience of the country was shocked by the Delhi case. Everybody was horrified. My impression from the US is that this is a very important topic and people are committed to change.
Given the rise in sexual offences, what steps should the state and women take?
Accountability has to be with the perpetrator of the harassment. Increase in reporting is a good sign that people are willing to come forth and report sexual offences.
You can never be sure that it is a sign of increased violence or if it’s a sign that more victims are willing to report the violence because they feel something will be done. There are strategies that might be useful here, particularly specialisation that we’ve been doing in the US for the past 20 years.
Twenty years ago, the (US) federal government made a big commitment to support specialised police, prosecutors, judges and courts in order to train those people to be leaders in combating gender-based violence and changing the culture around the issue. That it’s unacceptable, we will not tolerate any violence against women, has to come from everywhere.
Another example is the police. We have in the US special police meant to tackle crimes against women. They use special strategies to prosecute and to prevent violence. It includes using GPS if women are being stalked or to collect evidence of crimes.
Not all harassment that women face is going to be a criminal offence. But if you have to change the culture, you have to change those behaviours. A strategy that we’ve seen effective in the US is civil protective orders. It’s about asking the court for a no-harassment order to prevent a stalker or neighbour. There’s been a cultural change in the idea of women out in the streets and working. It has decreased the level of street harassment.
Are self-defence classes effective?
I think it’s great for women to take self-defence classes but I don’t think that alone will solve the problem. Other things that we encourage in the US are for women to know where to go if they feel unsafe in their homes. They can feel safe to go to the police but if they don’t want to take the criminal route or bring charges, we have hotlines in every community for women to call. It’s what we call a safety plan… strategies they can use to be as safe as they possibly can.
What makes for a competent hotline?
There should be 24-hour hotlines available and those numbers need to be publicised because people need to know how to reach those. In the US we have hotlines in every language. One could even call in Bengali and get help.
They will work with you on a strategy based on your circumstances. They have a checklist and go through a number of strategies and ideas about what to do. Confidentiality is important. If she’s calling to get some advice and talk with a counsellor, she might not need an identification number. The hotlines also provide legal aid about housing, shelter, divorce, child support and protective orders.
How should the government and NGOs work in tandem to combat human trafficking, especially in Bengal?
There are two different sides. One is the trafficker and the other is prosecution. I think the government needs to focus on both. In the US we’ve recently increased penalties for traffickers. Mumbai has a special trafficking court, which sounds interesting. We have similar things in the US, so it’s a good way to focus on faster prosecution of the traffickers.
The other way to prevent it is by trying to reduce demand. In Sweden there have been efforts to prosecute not only traffickers but also buyers. So it becomes much less acceptable to buy trafficked women for sex or labour. When you cut off demand, it becomes less profitable and you will prevent trafficking. But we also need resources and joint task forces to prevent and prosecute traffickers.
Successful programmes you’ve seen or worked on.
New York is a hub of human trafficking. In Manhattan we’ve been successful in getting the hotels… to identify traffickers.
Don’t know if it’s been tried here but it’s been successful because hotels are often the sites where a lot of this is happening. So it’s not just police prosecutors but also the private industry. They maybe profiting from this but they don’t want the world to know. Since high-profile stings in their hotel wouldn’t look good, they wanted to work with law enforcement to prevent any negative publicity.
What resources are needed for successful rehabilitation of trafficked women?
Housing, job training and trauma counselling. The government needs to help identify the victims and non-government organisations should provide the services.
Victims of trafficking in the US have now become leaders… they might be 18 or 20 but working with younger girls who have gone through the same experience.