LAHORE: After the kidnap case of Sobia Batool from Sargodha echoed in the Supreme Court recently, Punjab police statistics have revealed that 3,571 kidnapped girls and women remain missing across the province.

In the police records, the status of these girls and women has been declared “not recovered” as no one, including the police and their parents, is aware of the whereabouts of these women allegedly kidnapped during the last four years from across Punjab.

The report brought to the fore a disturbing figure of 40,585 women having been abducted between 2017 and January 2022 from all 36 districts of Punjab. The police claimed to have recovered or traced 37,140 of them. They have also arrested 53,459 suspects, while 12,374 others are still at large. However, due to a lack of disaggregated data, it is not known how many of those arrested were convicted or what became of the cases against them.

In the wake of the Sobia case being heard by the Supreme Court, Sargodha police traced bodies of 20 unidentified women from various parts of Punjab. During investigation of the case, police had launched a search operation for Batool and sought help from several state institutions. When they discovered the unidentified bodies, they extended the scope of investigation after some police experts feared Sobia may have been killed. The Punjab Forensic Science Agency was engaged and sent DNA samples, and the reports of 10 of the bodies suggested none of them belonged to Batool. The results of others are awaited.

Of over 40,000 women ‘abducted’ over past four years, police still clueless about whereabouts of more than 3,500

A senior police officer told Dawn that in some kidnap cases, suspects would lure young girls with a marriage proposal. The women would then be murdered after sexual assault and their bodies dumped to conceal the crime, he suggested.

A couple of days ago, Sargodha District Police Officer Dr Rizwan Ahmed Khan, during the hearing of the Sobia Batool case in the Supreme Court, had submitted a report revealing the recovery of 151 girls abducted in Sargodha division out of which 21 were rescued from prostitution dens. A three-member bench of the court was hearing the kidnap case registered at Sargodha’s Shahpur Saddar police station on Aug 28, 2020. She is yet to be recovered despite the arrest of 16 suspects.

During the hearing, the SC had expressed anger and directed Punjab Inspector General of Police Rao Sardar Ali Khan to take all available steps to recover Batool. It had pinned the blame of the abductions on police failure and incompetence that despite FIRs the recovery was lax.

The Punjab police data has revealed that out of the 3,571 women still missing most of them had disappeared from Lahore. Of these, 136 women were reported abducted in 2017, 234 in 2018, 344 in 2019, 462 in 2020, while 2021 witnessed an alarming situation, as 2,395 girls and women were allegedly kidnapped in Punjab.

Most of the kidnappings were reported in Lahore with 76 in 2017, 141 in 2018, 235 in 2019, 313 in 2020 and 1,098 in 2021.

According to the region-wise break-up, the report stated that 267 girls and women had been kidnapped from Sheikhupura region since 2017, 236 from Gujranwala, 374 from Rawalpindi, four from Sargodha, 143 from Faisalabad, 338 from Multan, 151 from Sahiwal, 78 from Dera Ghazi Khan and 117 from Bahawalpur region.

The issue of disappearance of women and girls highlights the police’s inability or negligence to pursue these cases until courts order it to. With many of these girls usually belonging to underprivileged areas and families, the authorities don’t even recognise their kidnappings as such and instead dismiss them as elopements without an inquiry. The possibility of the abducted women being trafficked for sex internally or externally is not even given a thought.

Since the police do not have disaggregated data on the ‘rescued’ girls/women, it is hard to say how many of them were forced into the sex business. Nonetheless, the Sargodha police report underlines that a significant number of them are lured into sex trafficking, though it is difficult to say how many are smuggled abroad. Many are sold into slavery for domestic help in far-off areas.

Commenting on the issue, a senior police officer believes that most of the girls and women are kidnapped on the pretext of marriage. “Under a policy, we lodge each case under abduction charges despite knowing that in some cases these girls have eloped to avoid forced marriages by their families,” he stated as a matter of fact, citing years of experience dealing with such cases and preliminary inquiries conducted before registering FIRs.

Only a small number of these girls end up being sold for sex trafficking, he claims, adding it needs thorough investigation to confirm how many are kidnapped for trafficking or sold into prostitution, and how many elope. He said such cases have become a common phenomenon in Pakistan and most were surfacing in rural areas in large numbers.

Some of those recovered have to face allegations from their families of being sexually exploited, thus bringing ‘dishonour’ upon the household, the officer said, adding that in such situations the girls usually fell prey to organised prostitution rings. Talking about the Sargodha crisis, he said 21 women were rescued from prostitution dens. They were among the 151 who had been kidnapped from various parts of the province, the officer said, declaring that such disappearances would fall drastically once families shunned forced marriages.

“When girls from rural areas or under-privileged households are kidnapped, their parents don’t follow up in most cases or even accept their daughters thereafter for bringing dishonour to the family. In some instances, families file kidnap cases if girls elope to escape forced marriages. Generally, reporting of kidnappings is also very low due to resistance from families, who lack resources to pursue the cases. Sex trafficking is also a factor here, but it’s not reported or probed. Police also show an indifferent attitude,” Sara Sheraz, resident director of Aurat Foundation Punjab, tells Dawn.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2022

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