THE data on the ‘missing’ girls from Sargodha — and its adjoining districts — recovered by the police since Jan 5 confirms that Pakistan’s girl abduction crisis is worse than most of us think. The Sargodha police claim that they had recovered, or traced, 151 girls who went missing over an unspecified period of time, maintaining that the vast majority of them were now living as married women while 21 had been rescued from brothel houses across Punjab. The data was submitted to a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, hearing the case of the disappearance of an 18-year-old woman in August 2020. She is yet to be traced in spite of the arrest of 16 suspects. The staggering numbers also surprised the judges, who deemed the abductions a failure of the police, forcing Justice Maqbool Baqir to remark that it was “a matter of great abuse” that despite FIRs the recovery was so lax.
That the police had started to pursue these disappearance cases only after the court had ordered them to shows that they aren’t doing enough about the increasing number of young girls or women who go missing from different parts of the province. Since the missing girls and women usually belong to underprivileged families, the law enforcers don’t even recognise their disappearance as cases of abduction. In most instances, the police don’t register FIRs let alone investigate the cases. The majority of such cases are dismissed as ‘elopements’ without an inquiry. Few are treated as kidnappings and even fewer are investigated. None of such incidents are considered part of the growing internal or external sex trafficking networks operating in the country. It is hard to give an exact number for girls abducted for, or lured into, sex trafficking since we have little data on this scourge as these incidents remain underreported or are registered by police under crimes unrelated to trafficking. But the number taken for sex trafficking must be very large as is revealed by the Sargodha police data. A 2021 US Department of State report on trafficking in persons in Pakistan also points out that the country does not “fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of internal — and external — trafficking” and that the law-enforcement agencies accord low priority to combating this menace. Unless the law enforcers start treating such abductions as cases of trafficking in persons and ramp up efforts to match the scale of the problem, the crisis will keep worsening.
Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2022