•  •  Dark Mode

Your Interests & Preferences

I am a...

law firm lawyer
in-house company lawyer
litigation lawyer
law student
aspiring student

Website Look & Feel

 •  •  Dark Mode
Blog Layout

Save preferences

Fighting sex trafficking against the odds: IJM legal director Michelle Mendonca

Michelle Mendonca's job: Not a waste, not cool, not easy
Michelle Mendonca's job: Not a waste, not cool, not easy
If you weren’t told the exact address of the office, you’d be certain to miss it in the busy North Mumbai suburb. There are no signs and Michelle Mendonca’s business card, as legal director of the International Justice Mission (IJM), merely lists a PO box.

The only giveaway that you are at the correct place is a security keypad locking an unmarked door inside the building.

Before she joined the IJM full-time in 2005, Mendonca started her career in finance after graduating from GLC Mumbai in 2003, later moving to become a senior officer at ICICI Bank. A few years later she was inspired by a friend and began volunteering in the anti-sex-trafficking field and developed an instant connection to the work. Now she’s a full convert. “I feel my years in the corporate sector [were] a waste,” she says. “You can't compare it – I don't even want to go there because it is like chalk and cheese.”

Thank-you notes crowd the bulletin board in the reception. When we meet, Mendonca is sitting in the IJM office’s library; it smells faintly of thickly-bound law journals shelved up to the ceiling.

The international non-governmental organization (NGO) aims to curb sex trafficking globally (and since 2000 in India) by rescuing victims, prosecuting perpetrators and dealing with the fall-out of sexual abuse and oppression. Next to its headquarters in Mumbai it has chapters in Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore.

The problem seems almost insurmountable. Prostitution in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest red light district, generates more than $400m per year, according to estimates, with 100,000 prostitutes facing six customers per day for Rs 100 each. Many of the prostitutes are children, of whom a large portion have been kidnapped and trafficked from India’s rural regions. In Mumbai, they become slaves for all intents and purposes and are subjected to regular violence while HIV infection and AIDS are rife.

For Mendonca, the courts can be a powerful ally in the IJM’s fight but almost as often they prove to be an obstacle, she explains. The average time to complete a prosecution against a trafficker is two years, despite a Bombay High Court judgment mandating six-month disposal.

Adjournment culture

“The witnesses get so fed up of coming to court,” says Mendonca, citing one recent witness who had to come to court six times for his testimony. “In most hearings, nothing happens. So it goes on every 15 days, you get a [new] date.”

“I remember when I joined, I was horrified. I looked at some court report and for months the case hadn’t proceeded. Either witnesses weren’t there or the prosecutor or the judge was not there.”

Most sex trafficking trials require an independent witness - usually a community volunteer unconnected to the IJM or the victim - although law students have volunteered in the past to be present during rescue missions and the ensuing trial. In fact, law students make good witnesses, claims Mendonca.

Section 309 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPc) is the strongest tool against adjournments, according to Mendonca. “At IJM we have a policy of just opposing every adjournment under section 309 of the CrPc. So whenever a witness is present in court, the judge has to give a special reason if they want to adjourn.”

Naturally, many times the survivors – a term Mendonca prefers to “victim” during our conversation - become impatient and get tired of waiting for their court date to arrive. In some cases, the girls return to their native village after rescue. If they move on with their lives, they can be reluctant to come back to Mumbai to attend the trials. This hampers the process of bringing the perpetrators to book.

The Bombay High Court in Prerana vs State of Maharashtra & ors (Criminal WP No. 1694 of 2003) directed that sex trafficking cases should be disposed of expeditiously. Trial courts should take victims’ testimony within one month and complete the trial within six months of the charge-sheet being filed, ruled Justices Ranjana Desai and DB Bhosale in 2007.

So far, the average length of such cases still sits at two years.

Using the law

Besides the law, rescues and prosecutions depend a great deal on cooperation from the police. The IJM does not have any powers to raid premises where sex trafficking is suspected to be taking place. Normally these raids can happen without a warrant under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 (PITA). However, only “special police officers”, such as inspectors or those in charge of police stations, can conduct search and rescue missions.

Normally, those senior cops are very busy making it hard for trafficking cases to take priority, but Mendonca says she is impressed with the initiatives and efforts made by many.

“For instance, recently Maharashtra has appointed Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police Mrs Shobha Ohatkar who handles all anti-trafficking cases. She is extremely sensitive to NGOs and this is very, very helpful,” explains Mendonca.

As nodal officer for anti-trafficking efforts, Ohatkar has in only two months invited IJM to train police officers at two stations. Police stations in Mumbai’s zone 2 under additional police commissioner Naval Bajaj, the SS police branch, and Mira Road have anti-human-trafficking cells, according to Mendonca.

Another factor causing delays is the fact that there aren't victim protection mandates in the law for victims of the sex trade. For instance, a rape victim under the CrPc is entitled to an in-camera hearing. PITA offers no such protection although many judges increasingly order in-camera hearings. But sometimes, “it is still a fight and a battle and it should not be that way”, says Mendonca. “Protection should be enshrined in the law.”

The road in court

Cases under the PITA Act are tried in magistrate courts which are the lowest rung for such cases, while a special PITA court exists in Mazagaon.

There are no special courts in other districts, and thus the case goes to whichever magistrate has jurisdiction over where the rescue took place. In PITA cases, if the perpetrators are booked under heavier charges, the case is transferred to the sessions courts.

“Most of these girls are forced to have sex with customers and that's abetment to rape,” Mendoca says. “We like to encourage the police to add these serious charges so they go to the sessions court.”

Sensitive systems

Above all else, Mendonca advocates sensitisation of the authorities. Judges and prosecutors are often over-burdened and tend to deal with sex trafficking cases like any other, when in fact they need a slightly lighter touch. Most judges expect the survivors to be able to give exact accounts of their harrowing experiences, not considering the immense amount of trauma and anxiety the girls go through.

She sings high praise of Judge Tadwadkar, however, who concluded a matter involving a Bangladeshi girl in the Sewree courts in three months. “There were at most 12 hearings for this case,” she recounts with awe. “There were no adjournments. He just refused to grant adjournments. He said bring all of the witnesses on this day, he held the police accountable, he held the prosecutor accountable, he held the defence counsel accountable. This judge was amazing.”

While there are Supreme Court and Bombay High Court guidelines on how sex trafficking victims are to be treated – for example, how one should take the evidence in the context of the trauma that they undergo – Mendonca says that not many prosecutors and judges are aware of these laws.

“The victim is not treated well in court. That has an impact on the testimony. IJM doesn't only seek prosecution. So even when you have a conviction where the victim has not been treated well in court, she doesn't think the fight is worth it,” explains Mendonca,

“She doesn't feel vindicated when she comes to court. When the judge or the prosecutor is insensitive, it makes a huge difference to that victim's sense of justice.”

Mendonca avers that the court room plays an important role in the entire rehabilitation process. Not only does the judicial system have the power to return to the girl some amount of dignity and self-respect, but it can also be the reason for the survivors to have confidence in the legal system, or not.

“We want our victim to be empowered through her testimony in court.”

Survival coaching

The survivors are often anxious about speaking in court about their horrifying tales. Often, says Mendonca , they stay up the night before the hearings without eating or sleeping trying to muster up the courage. As a result, victims can be reluctant to follow through with court proceedings.

While IJM only intervenes when the cross examination crosses boundaries, Mendoca and her team offer up encouraging words. “They're sometimes still apprehensive and we try and help them understand that through their speaking out, other girls will be saved,” she explains. “No matter how much pain and trauma they've gone through, she will come into court to spare somebody else that pain.

“It never fails to work.”

Hope for government training

Mendonca says she hopes the government will invest in training programs for lawyers and judges to sensitise them fully and thus empower them to properly deal with sex trafficking cases.

“We’d like the government to partner with NGOs to offer this training,” she says. “We offer them this free of cost and are very eager to share this expertise. We think the government can invest in training for all judges. Then, all judges and all prosecutors can be sensitive and take these cases seriously. Overworked, some feel [survivors] are prostitutes who have brought this upon themselves.”

This year IJM will approach the law ministry to propose training for prosecutors too. They often have 10 cases a day and thus do not have enough time to devote to cases. Very often they change and this lack of continuity results in a prosecutor not being able to see a case through from the start to the finish.

“We've held training for prosecutors in the past but we feel it would be much better if it comes from the law and judiciary department [of the Maharashtra government]. We did a training for prosecutors in 2009 on 'chief examining and cross-examining techniques.” she says.

“Other roadblocks are our collaborators in the justice system,. “The police and the prosecutors are overworked and underpaid. And I find them that many of them are passionate about justice but they don't have the resources, such as the state prosecutors,” says Mendonca.

Not cool, not easy

IJM hires a few lawyers who are trained in this field but Mendonca says that the organization is open to senior advocates coming in to help with the training. “We'd love to have qualified, experienced people come and help us. People passionate for this cause.”

IJM also offers opportunities for interns but discourages people from short-term internships, instead preferring law students who can come on board for at least 10 months.

“This is not a cool, easy job,” she says, with a smile. “It's an intense job that requires a lot of perseverance and excellence.”

Get involved

If law firms want to get involved and help, the following IJM project is posted on the i-Probono website.

“We'd like to train judges and prosecutors in Immoral Traffic Prevention Act to increase their sensitivity to victims in court and to understand the directions of the Supreme Court and Bombay High Court in appreciating of evidence in these cases.

“We would like senior advocates to lend their name to the training and power actors to create political demand and will in the Maharashtra government and in the Indian government to partner with us in creating and delivering this training.”

Click here for more information about i-Probono and to sign up.

Legally India profile of the the i-Probono project.

Click to show 7 comments
at your own risk
By reading the comments you agree that they are the (often anonymous) personal views and opinions of readers, which may be biased and unreliable, and for which Legally India therefore has no liability. If you believe a comment is inappropriate, please click 'Report to LI' below the comment and we will review it as soon as practicable.