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No fear of accountability

The Victorian chimney sweep in Britain, the first industrial nation, was once an even bigger symbol of inhumanity than the bonded child labourer and sex-trafficked women of Pakistan and India today.

Conventionally, the Third World has been labelled as perpetuating the inhumane concept of human trafficking. However, contrary to this misconception, working children and trafficked women are a global phenomenon and have long been viewed as cheap resources that are exploited by several developed countries as well.

Human trafficking is the second most lucrative source of organised crime revenue in the world after the arms and drugs trade. Pakistan in particular has been described as “one of the key sources of women trafficking” in the world.

In Pakistan this issue is multi-dimensional (consisting of both bonded labour and sex trafficking) and stems from the fact that Pakistan is an origin, transit and destination country.

The source countries from where Pakistan receives trafficked individuals include but are not limited to Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Central Asia. Women being trafficked from the Middle East and Bangladesh transit through Pakistan before reaching their final destinations. Women and children are also trafficked from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, India and sometimes onwards to Eastern Europe as well.

Additionally, young boys have been trafficked from Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates to work as camel jockeys. Children as young as four and five have been uprooted from their families and sent to nurture the camels and participate in the races, often leading to serious injuries and death.

The key logic underlying trafficking is the profitability and the transactionalist nature of the business: it is a lucrative industry that has become a convenient method of trading and earning money, based on the rules of demand and supply.

The economics of market exchange can be applied to this field: there is a considerably high demand for trafficked individuals both internally and by host countries. Therefore those who wish to become agents/traffickers are presented with a profitable market at a relatively non-hassle cost.

Moreover, individuals can be ‘sold’ more than once, unlike the drugs or arms trade, which makes the trade more profitable. However in Pakistan the market for trafficking is not restricted to mere profit and loss: this means that notions of personhood, shame (izzat) and honour are closely intertwined with sex and labour trafficking.

Ironically, the red light areas of Pakistan, specifically the Shahi Mohalla of Lahore, the bazar-i-husn of Multan, and those of Rahim Yar Khan, Kasur, Layyah and Hyderabad are administered through stringent regulations and are the hub of ‘gundaism’. To cite a case in point, the legacy of the ‘red-light’ district of Lahore originates from the ‘dancing girl’ culture prevalent amongst the courtesans of the Mughal era. However, Louise Brown’s intermittent seven-year research in the red light area of Lahore documented in her book, Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia shows how this cultural tradition has in fact transformed into a chiefly commercial trade today.

The clients now are usually wealthy, often educated upper class men, and the cultural elements of the dance have been far removed. According to one of Brown’s informants during her fieldwork in Heera Mandi, “It was good in those days, but all that has changed; nobody bothers with singing and dancing anymore. We were trained for years, but today nobody does that.”

In another instance, Parveen, a 20-year-old woman, was a victim of sex trafficking. As a 14-year-old Pakhtun girl, Parveen was living in northwest Pakistan when one day while she was walking to school she was hit on the head.

According to her, the next time she woke up she found herself imprisoned in a brothel in the town of Khanpur. “I didn’t know what had happened to me or where I was,” she said. “Then, when the drugs wore off, they told me I was to be a prostitute.”

There is no single group to be blamed for human trafficking; however in Pakistan’s particular case one major factor exacerbating trafficking is that the official authorities and legislation/ courts are often negligent if not complicit in cases of human trafficking.

As a consequence, trafficking agents are not deterred by fear of accountability. Moreover, at present the structure of Pakistani society is such that it reinforces the hegemonic patriarchal system, within which women and children have limited operational capacity. Due to the fact that this system serves social functions, the comprador elite responsible for policymaking do not place a high priority on trafficking. The role of the government has to be clearer on the issue of trafficking. Internal laws should be introduced within Pakistan by emulating international trafficking laws.

Civil society including the media and human rights groups should make an added effort to ensure widespread awareness of this issue, as the majority of trafficking victims remain oblivious to their subjugation.

The most challenging element is tackling the taboo associated with trafficking, especially sex trafficking; as a result of this social stigma women are often fearful of allowing their experiences of victimisation and torture to surface in the wider society and cases are underreported.

Moreover, victims of trafficking should be provided with proper legal and financial aid as well as social welfare. In short, transformation will have to be led from the front and the top — otherwise as Audrey Lorde put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change”.

The writer is an anthropologist from the University of Oxford.

Saba Karim Khan, "No fear of accountability," Dawn. 2013-01-04.