By Zubeida Mustafa
MARCH 8 was International Women’s Day and as is now customary the event allows social activists and feminists to focus on ‘gender equality’, the theme for this year. Given the candour of the youth, the discourse now allows for a true debate, which is the essence of democracy and crucial to the empowerment of women.
There is however a section of the female population of Pakistan whose cause has gone unnoticed by default. They are the trafficked ones. The media and human rights bodies have not fully addressed their suffering and the violation of their fundamental right to freedom. In that respect, I feel proud that my newspaper (Dawn) is the first one to have commented editorially on this issue twice within a week.
The trafficking of women for trading in prostitution is a crime against humanity which no country with a public conscience can choose to ignore. Only recently, it came to light that the Punjab police had disclosed that 40,585 women have been abducted in the period 2017-22 from Punjab. Although the police claim that they have recovered or traced 37,140 of them, one cannot really vouchsafe for the accuracy of this claim. About 53,400 suspects are said to have been arrested though it is not known what happened next. Were they investigated, prosecuted and convicted?
The figures were described as “staggering”. One of the judges on the Supreme Court bench hearing the case of one of the abducted girls termed it a failure of the police.
The case of trafficked girls and women goes unnoticed.
The fact of the matter is that this is not the full story. The figures quoted are only for Punjab. The other provinces have also contributed their share in making Pakistan a haven for traffickers and hell for abducted women. How can any leader of this country — civil, religious or military— hold up his head before the global community of nations and claim that he is a defender of women’s rights?
For nearly two decades, the US State Department has been issuing an annual report on the Trafficking of Persons (TIP) giving details of this criminal activity worldwide. Pakistan’s record is horrendous in terms of the massiveness of the number of victims and the paucity of corrective and preventive measures taken.
The figures reported in the TIP report annually increased over the years from over 12,000 to around 32,000 (2017 to 2021). The total includes boys and men picked up for bonded labour. The country is a leading member of the club patronising modern-day slavery.
One may well ask why. The main reason is the very factor why International Women’s Day is observed: the low status of women. In our patriarchal society it is easy and quite credible in the popular mind to hold women responsible for all sex crimes. According to the popular view, a woman is the source of such evils as she entices the man and so she deserves her fate. Small wonder no concerted efforts are made to eliminate these crimes or create awareness and sensitivity about sexuality issues. It is so easy for the police to dismiss a case of abduction as one of elopement.
The trafficking of women for sex trading is probably the biggest financial factor in Pakistan’s black economy. It has international links and transactions of multimillion rupees are conducted daily. The icing on the cake is that there is official complicity at all levels after the crime is committed. The funds generated are shared by a wide range of parties to provide protection to all involved.
I don’t have any documentary evidence but have my experience to relate when I was running from pillar to post in a futile attempt to rescue two minor girls allegedly abducted by their stepbrother. Unofficially, I received a lot of information in the process on what happens behind the scenes in such cases.
For instance, one of the investigating officers informed me that the accused was receiving Rs120,000 every month which in the IO’s words was like “Dubai for a poor man in Karachi”. Connecting the dots, I could understand the tardiness of the judicial process that was deliberately created by corrupt lawyers and officials. Our system needs the grease of ‘heavy tipping’ to work and in trafficking cases money is there in abundance. Unfortunately, many among lower court magistrates are allegedly not averse to such manipulations.
In the case I was privy to even a judge of the higher judiciary was unable to ensure the presence of the victims’ mother at the bail hearing of the accused. He won his freedom on bail. Out of jail he continued his machinations in the lower judiciary. The case did not even reach the sessions court where it was expected to go having been directed to the judiciary by the Anti-Violent Crime Cell that deals with serious crimes.
Where do we go now? The trafficked girls’ poverty and their underprivileged class denied them justice.