By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The stark, storefront office seems a strange new addition to a quiet street in the western Indian city of Thane, nestled among traditional grocery stores and a men's hair salon.
But this 'legal aid clinic' is India's latest effort to inform trafficking victims of their rights after liberation from the sex trade.
"Most victims assume there is no justice system for the poor and continue to struggle after their rescue," said Michael Yangad of the campaign group International Justice Mission.
Yangad's non-profit organisation set up the clinic with a local judicial body, the District Legal Services Authority.
Lawyers at the new centre - it opened just last week - help victims access education, jobs and housing: benefits to which they have been eligible for more than a year.
Similar clinics exist nationwide to help the poor with free legal services and in settling disputes. But the clinic in Thane, just 20 km from Mumbai, is one of the first to focus solely on the rescued victims of sex trafficking.
India introduced a new scheme for trafficking victims in late 2015, making them beneficiaries to a set of government programmes for marginalised communities or the underprivileged.
Experts say that there is no awareness of the schemes and no way to connect victims with the benefits.
The centre in Thane hopes to change that by passing on names of those who escaped trafficking to government officials who can approve the benefits. Legal aid for court cases will also be provided.
Mumbai's anti human trafficking unit rescued more than 600 girls over the last two years, according to official data.
News agencies say that more than 14,000 girls were rescued from the Indian sex trade between 2014 and 2015.
Charities run rehabilitation and vocational training for rescued girls, but life after liberation is often traumatic and re-trafficking remains a risk, activists say.
"If a victim is kept at a home with no rehabilitation option, it is secondary victimisation, which only contributes to trafficking," said Sunitha Krishnan, founder of the anti-trafficking charity Prajwala.
TRIED AND TESTED
The police, local court officials and charities have been told about the clinic so they can direct rescued girls for help.
"There are cases of trafficking in Bhiwandi and Kalyan that are close to Thane, so this clinic will be helpful," said D. N. Kher, a judge with Thane's District Legal Services Authority.
Reports of human trafficking in India rose by 25 per cent in 2015 compared to the previous year.
Yet the scepticism with which government schemes are usually viewed appears missing when it comes to legal aid clinics.
This is because victims are getting results, said Krishnan.
"We have managed to get housing for 700 girls in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since 2003 under government schemes. The same model is now being applied nationally," she said.
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava, Editing by Ed Upright and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)