By Zubeida Mustafa
OF all the crimes committed against children — especially the daughters of the poor in Pakistan — the most horrendous is the trafficking of girls. It is more agonising than rape. The sex trade amounts to torture. The girls who are snatched and taken away to be sold into forced prostitution have to live with this hideous evil night after night. Only a few lucky ones manage to escape or are rescued.
Yet this is our most well-known secret. It is a multi-million rupee (dollars for smugglers) business. No names are mentioned. Numerous international law instruments recognise the trafficking of girls as a violation of their rights, but these laws are weak in their implementation mechanisms and, hence, there is a general apathy towards this heinous crime. The few that are working on this issue say that even the police in general do not understand the legal implications of kidnapping, trafficking and smuggling. I add to this the general misogynist attitude that women are to blame.
Who is involved? There are not just the traffickers who mint money. The customers, many of them alleged to be men in positions of power and influence, provide the much-needed support that sustains this business. It is a beehive that no one dares to touch. To do so would amount to stepping on too many toes.
Confided in me by their mother, one case of two young girls has haunted me for months and prompted me to tell you this story. These girls certainly did not deserve this fate. Their only ‘fault’ was their gender, their tender age, their being fatherless and, above all, poverty. They were forcibly abducted two years ago.
Pakistan’s human sex trafficking racket is thriving in a culture of impunity.
All that the police now say is that the man (the girls’ stepbrother) who had snatched them then ‘sublet’ them to another man (probably an agent) for, it is believed, prostitution. For a man who has never held a steady job, this became a source of steady income. He was receiving Rs70,000 per month for his vile investment in trafficking. Stakes are high in the sex market, and one policeman described this as a ‘Dubai for a man of no means’. The others in the chain would be earning more. The network is big and its size provides protection to all. I have heard of millions changing hands in this ‘profession’ in the course of one night.
This is the reality of human trafficking and sex slavery. Advocates working for the recovery of such children — who end up in brothels, on the streets or as beggars — believe that this crime is on the rise. In 2010, 1,570 children went missing, were trafficked or kidnapped. In 2016, this figure had jumped to 2,452. Since no data is officially recorded, these are guesstimates.
A petition before the Supreme Court, which had its second hearing last week, names 37 respondents ranging from the IG Police and advocates general of all provinces to the numerous bodies dealing with women and children. Filed by lawyer Zia Ahmed Awan, the focus of the petition is on having the apex court order the government to create a mechanism to check human trafficking. The FIA, in its statement before the National Assembly in March, admitted its lack of capacity to cover the entire country. Inter-provincial coordination among the police can also be challenging, as was hinted to me by a ‘good police officer’ (to use one of my nine-year old students’ words, when I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up).
Our police does not enjoy the public’s confidence, yet some members have been truly helpful like the SSP who is handling this case, for which I ran from pillar to post before I was introduced to him. I hope the petition will succeed in getting the apex court and police to recover all the victims of this horrendous crime, including the two girls I am fighting for.
The US State Department has shown extraordinary interest in the matter and has placed Pakistan on its watch list since 2014. Its 2017 report on human trafficking categorically states, “Pakistan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.” Hence, it remains on Tier 2 of the US watch list. What is most disturbing is the US’ allegation that “official complicity in trafficking crimes remained a serious problem”.
It was intriguing that, when all the provinces submitted reports of sex trafficking cases for the first time in 2016, the conviction rate was shown to be shockingly low. Of the 2,353 traffickers prosecuted, only 120 were convicted. The least convincing was Sindh’s record, where only 35 cases were investigated, 164 individuals were prosecuted and no one was convicted.
It has been observed by the NGO Madadgaar that the concerned officials have not been cooperative with the parents of missing children — they have not gone beyond performing formalities such as making entries in the roznamcha. Thereafter, the case goes into abeyance. Have a heart, sirs.