Trafficking lives

May 18, 2019

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The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

MISOGYNY in our society knows no limits. The issue of human smuggling has recently resurfaced in the media due to reports of sex trafficking of Pakistani girls to China. The question that arose regarding these cases is whether the families of the girls were fully cognisant and involved in the decision of ‘selling’ their daughters.

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand that misogyny is not about men harbouring hatred for women and girls; that would be too simplistic. In reality, it is about patriarchal structures that support male privilege so men feel entitled and superior to women in general. This sense of entitlement over women leads to hostility towards those women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations.

As a society, however, we refuse to understand or acknowledge the depth of our own sexism, as we have internalised customs and social mores that perpetuate misogyny at many levels. A study conducted in 2012 in Rajanpur revealed that the buying and selling of girls for money is a known practice in the region — however, this has been preceded by generations of social practices where a girl is sold off to settle murders or land disputes. In the villages where these forms of trafficking were being practised, the community raises no objection — not even to outright sales — and there are little or no social consequences for the perpetrators. In other words, we are all implicated in social mores that denigrate and devalue women and girls at every step, though the truth is that we may not even be aware of it.

We are all implicated in social mores that devalue women and girls.

Nurtured by existing social prejudices, human trafficking thrives on circumstances of poverty, desperation, discrimination, conflict, criminality and more. Research also suggests that young girls from poverty-stricken families remain the most vulnerable group when it comes to human trafficking. It must also be noted that the offences that come under the purview of human trafficking are much broader and include bonded labour, forced marriage, child marriage, sexual exploitation and child trafficking. Recently, many cases of forced domestic labour of minor girls that have resulted in rape and abuse have come to light. One case that shook our conscience was that of a child maid called Tayyaba.

Upon investigating her story, a lot of ugly truths came to the fore. Not only was the family of the little girl involved in sending her to work as a maid, there were local ‘agents’ ready to exploit this opportunity, and urban households willing to employ children in their homes. Unfortunately, the truth is that a large number of trafficked women and children are given up willingly by their parents, in exchange for a lump sum. The reasoning behind this is the fact that sacrificing one member of the family means a chance at a better life for the rest of them. We as a society are equally complicit.

There has been a move to address the crime of human trafficking through legislation, ie the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, 2018. Despite the law being drafted, its implementation can be termed as mediocre at best. Overall, the economic crisis the country is currently facing is a huge contributing factor; more and more people are willing to enter into dubious contracts to essentially trade their daughters in order to secure a better future for other family members or in many cases to pay off debts.

This is a sorry situation indeed, but hardly unsurprising in a country where human rights laws are laughable and the government does little to protect the rights of its citizens, minorities or otherwise. Illiteracy is widespread, and awareness regarding what can be termed as human trafficking, and how to counteract it, is very low.

Defining the prob­lem has always been the easy part; the tougher stage is identifying a solution. However, one obvious solution is to work with law-enforcement agencies to nurture a mindset change within the police and to improve their awareness and understanding of trafficking-related issues, since law-enforcement agencies generally accord low priority to human trafficking, or many times end up penalising the victim and their family.

And since many of the trafficked persons are underage, there is a need to make the justice system more responsive to juvenile victims, as a significant number of victims and their families either choose to remain silent for the sake of honour or from the sheer lack of support they expect from the legal system. The toughest part is to build structures to rehabilitate survivors of human trafficking — many times it is the families that reject them upon return. Last but not least, it is important to convict sex traffickers and also all those that are aiding and abetting such crimes, for only then can we take steps to eradicate this evil that resides among us.

The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2019