Two years ago, Ann Jordan created the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University Washington College of Law (WCL) to discover and bring exposure to new and innovative approaches that local communities can undertake to combat human trafficking.

On September 24, 2009, Jordan led the “Human Trafficking in Mumbai” event at WCL to explain the efforts of Population Service International (PSI) in Mumbai, India to reduce human trafficking by engaging local sex workers.

Over 6,000 prostitutes live in Kamathipura, the largest red light district in Mumbai. Many of the prostitutes are trafficked women from different areas of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Generally, trafficked women work for five years without any wages to pay back the price the brothel owner paid for them. Even after paying this amount, they must share half their wages with the brothel owner. Since most trafficked women have no work skills or experience outside the brothel, after retiring, many start their own brothels.

Recently, the local government and NGOs collaborated to permit all children over three years of age to attend boarding school, allowing children who would otherwise grow up in a brothel to leave that environment. Attending school helps children of sex workers to break out of an ongoing cycle by putting them in a position to care for their non-working mothers. Mothers who have financial support from their children are much less likely to open their own brothels after they retire. However, children who attend religious schools are often turned against their mothers and taught to be ashamed of them. Thus, while education is crucial in expanding children’s opportunities, it can also disrupt relationships between sex workers and their children.

In 2006, PSI began a program to empower women in Kamathipura and help them organize into a workers’ collective named Sangha Mitra. The group’s main objectives are to empower female sex workers, to engage and cooperate with law enforcement, to provide health care for women and their children, and to help women save money. One of the largest obstacles the group encountered was animosity and hostility between women from different regions. To overcome these difficulties, the organizers met with small groups of women (as few as five).  As they built trust and relationships, they gradually expanded the groups. Since its formation, Sangha Mitra has established health care centers, rest places, and a bank in Kamathipura to provide women with basic services. PSI worked closely with Sangha Mitra to establish the bank, which is now completely self sufficient and one of the biggest success stories of the program. “Runners,” who are often sex workers’ children, collect money from the women during the day, and then the local bank transfers money to the Bank of India every night. By working with the police and with brothel owners, Sangha Mitra has also contributed to reducing the number of children trafficked into Kamathipura.

According to Jordan, self-organized programs like Sangha Mitra are essential in improving the lives of trafficked women, because the affected population can express their needs and focus on the priorities they consider most pressing. Past NGO efforts have been slow to implement programs that engage sex workers, because they do not want to been seen as cooperating with sex workers or encouraging prostitution. However, many of these programs, which focus on prevention of trafficking or reintegration of trafficked women, do not have data or evidence showing measurable success – a problem that PSI is striving to avoid.

PSI is currently gathering baseline documentation, so that it will be able to effectively measure its progress in subsequent years. By gathering and tracking data, PSI will be able to determine which programs best serve the interests of the women in Kamathipura and which do not. The WCL Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor strongly encourages such evidence-based data collection so that information may be shared and the most effective programs may be replicated in other areas where trafficked women face similar problems.