Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-SOUTH ASIA: White Slavery Still a Thriving Trade

KARACHI, Dec 29 1997 (IPS) - They are kidnapped, “married” off to agents by unsuspecting parents, or enticed by prospects of a better life — but these Bangladeshi and Burmese women end up in the brothels of Pakistan.

After making the perilous journey, often on foot across India, they would probably be luckier if sold into domestic slavery along with their children. But more likely, they are forced into abject prostitution by brothel owners.

The numbers involved in the trafficking of this human cargo are staggering: between 100 to 150 women are estimated to enter Pakistan illegally very day. Few ever return to their homes in remote poverty-stricken areas which are the favourite hunting ground of the ‘dalals’ or agent.

Karachi-based advocate Zia Ahmed Awan, who is with the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), estimates that there are over 200,000 undocumented Bangladeshi women in Pakistan, including some 2,000 in jails and shelters across the country.

A Sindh police report in 1993 found that Bangladeshis comprise 80 percent, and Burmese 14 percent, of Karachi’s undocumented immigrants. The report indicates that border police and other law enforcement agencies are well aware of the trafficking through entry points into Pakistan like Lahore, Kasur, Bahawalpur, Chhor and Badin.

“Yet no constructive, affirmative steps are taken by law enforcement agencies to prosecute traffickers and stop the exploitation of women and children at the hands of both police, agents and other individuals,” Awan said.

Big money is involved in the trafficking of humans. In 1988, posing as a potential client, this correspondent found that the going price for a Bengali or Burmese woman was between 1,500 to 2,500 U.S. dollars — depending on age, looks, docility and virginity.

The price has remained steady, as has the momentum of the “trade”, thanks to the connivance of those tasked to prevent it. For each child or woman sold, the police is reported to claim a 15 to 20 percent commission.

In 1991, a reporter from the “Jang” newspaper, posing as a buyer, was assured that the police would not interfere and would even escort him back home with his purchase. “Where do you want to go? Rawalpindi, Gujrat, Lahore. . . . Wherever you go, it is my responsibility. The police will not say anything,” the reporter was told.

Media exposure has made the dalals slightly more wary, prompting them to closely check the credentials of “clients”. The risks may even have contributed to a slight hike in prices. But the trade continues unabated and as openly as ever.

Every once in a while, the police make token raids into the dens and brothels of Karachi’s notorious ‘Bengali paras’, or slums. If arrests are made, they are, ironically, of women and children, and never the agents who brought them there.

“The victims are further victimised by the police and the legal system, which treat them as criminals,” said Zia Awan. The women are booked under Pakistan’s controversial ‘Hudood Ordinances’, promulgated in 1981 by the late military dictator Gen Zia ul Haq.

The Zina Ordinance, which comes under the supposedly Islamic Hudood Ordinance, makes adultery or sex outside marriage a crime against the state. And because the women and girls recovered are usually prostitutes, they are often charged with Zina.

Sometimes, they are booked under the Passport Act. Either way, they have to spend long periods in prison. If released on bail, often through the efforts of lawyers like Awan, they are sent to government-run shelters for women such as the Darul Aman.

Privately-run homes such as that of the philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi “Apna Ghar” also exist, but are equally depressing and regimented.

“Some of the women in prison have to stay there way past expiry of their sentences because of the problems in repatriating them,” said lawyer Nausheen Ahmed. “For illegal immigration, the sentence is four years, but many women end up serving three or four years extra, either waiting for trial or to clear immigration formalities,” she added.

“A major problem arises from the fact that the Bangladeshi government does not want to get involved,” she explained. “It does not accept these undocumented people as citizens, since they have no legally recognised proof of citizenship.”

Many are totally unlettered and unable to provide addresses back home. For those who are able to give such details, repatriation is hampered by government apathy and difficulty in tracing the addresses in remote rural areas.

“This is basically an economic problem,” commented the Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court, Justice Wajiuddin Ahmed, at a regional seminar on the issue, organised here last week by the LHRLA in collaboration with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Justice Wajiuddin noted the problem was related to the overall status of women in male-dominated South Asia, where women are often perceived as commodities or male property.

“As a Pakistani citizen, I am not worried about the numbers of women that arrive here — there should be free movement and a free mixture of people,” said the Chief Justice. “What is worrying is their plight, the difficulties they face, and how they are treated.”

Justice Wajiuddin also noted the unfortunate role played by the police. “How many traffickers are caught and punished? “This trade will not end unless police and border officials do their duty instead of parading as thugs in police uniforms.”

Participants at the workshop sought a more humane approach to curbing the problem of trafficking, calling for a change in law and terminology in order to de-criminalise undocumented rather than “illegal” migrants, and affected persons rather than “victims”.

“We can’t achieve anything unless the governments accept that it is their primary responsibility to stop the exploitation of women and children, and act upon this realisation,” said Mohini Giri, the dynamic director of the Women’s Commission, headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India.

“NGOs must act as a pressure group to make the government take this action,” she said. “What is needed is salvation from sexual exploitation, a transformation of attitudes, a change in laws, and quick measures of rehabilitation and prevention.”

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