Chennai, India
Thomson Reuters Foundation

After being trafficked for sex as a girl of 16, Malika hoped that government compensation would get her back on her feet - but the young mother is now jobless, living on the streets and 200,000 Indian rupees ($US2,727) in debt.

Despite being awarded 150,000 rupees in compensation in 2019, Malika is among thousands of women survivors of trafficking, sexual assault and acid attacks waiting for payment since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.

"We are living in an open ground with a plastic sheet 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 India's West Bengal state.

"I applied for victim compensation to build a better life but I am living a terrible one instead," she said, adding that her husband had travelled to look for odd jobs, leaving her with the children who kept falling ill.

Malika said creditors regularly hounded her to repay loans she has taken to feed her children but when the compensation does arrive, it will not even clear her debts.

India New Delhi protection home

A 16-year-old girl with her hand decorated with henna stands inside a protection home on the outskirts of New Delhi, on 9th November, 2012. PICTURE: REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal 

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

India has a scheme to compensate women and girls who survive sexual assault, acid attacks and trafficking, but only a fraction receive compensation due to low awareness of the scheme and the high burden of proof required, studies show.

"I applied for victim compensation to build a better life but I am living a terrible one instead."

- Malika, who was trafficked for sex as a girl of 16.

 

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

West Bengal State Legal Services Authority, which is responsible for paying compensation to survivors like Malika, had "exhausted funds by March, 2020, and had just 5,000 rupees in the account", said its member secretary Raju Mukherjee.

"We could do nothing, make no payments," said Mukherjee, whose state has among the highest number of trafficking survivors in India. "But we have recently received funds...and are trying to expedite the process now."

Women's rights campaigners have long complained that the compensation scheme is too slow, with survivors waiting years to testify in court to determine the size of their award, while state authorities often run short of funds.

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

With courts functioning at limited capacity, survivors unable to travel to follow up on cases and priority shifting to containing the pandemic, compensation applications were not cleared and money was not dispersed, legal aid officials said.

"Many acid attack survivors had to stop their ongoing treatment during the pandemic as compensation was not coming through," said Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator for Acid Survivors and Women Welfare Foundation.

Part compensation needs to be paid within 15 days of the application being cleared, Chaudhuri said, adding that the need for money was most urgent in the initial days, particularly for medical treatment.

NALSA said that the sums offered do take into account the severity of trauma, physical harm, medical expenses, loss of education, employment and financial condition of the survivor.

India Mumbai crowds

People shop at a crowded marketplace amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, on 5th April. PICTURE: Reuters/Niharika Kulkarni/

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

"It was a migrant family who literally had a hand-to-mouth existence and could not even go back to their village," said Iskandari, who provides legal aid to charity HAQ Centre for Child Rights.

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

Across states, lawyers and charities said that routine checks by legal services authorities before clearing a compensation application is a slow process that was practically halted during the pandemic, with state cash flows badly hit.

"Survivors...are often from the most marginalised communities. How can you tell them there is no money?" asked Iskandari.

"Survivors...are often from the most marginalised communities. How can you tell them there is no money?"

- Lawyer Zishaan Iskandari

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

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

"Very few [survivors] are aware of the compensation scheme and actually apply for it," said Ram Mohan, secretary of anti-trafficking charity HELP, which supports survivors, mostly poor women and children lured by promises of work.

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

The hardship suffered by survivors during the pandemic has sparked fresh calls for reform of the compensation system, with women's rights campaigners calling for faster, more generous payments.

"Survivors are becoming more aware, demanding their rights," said Amina Khatun Laskar, secretary of anti-trafficking NGO Bansra Birangana Seva Samity.

"The system is not supporting them. They cannot afford these delays and [states] need to pay up."