The year was 2019. *Safia was very happy as she was going to get married to a wonderful man she had met over the internet. She thought her cyber love story would make headlines like couples who fell in love online and married. Her future husband was a rich foreigner and she had been impressed by pictures of his home and cars. As far as she was concerned, he was a suitable match – young, handsome, and well off. He had told her he didn’t want anything from her except her love and on top of that he would bear all the expenses of the marriage. She had full authority and freedom to plan the event as she wanted.
Coming from a family of modest means, Safia was overwhelmed that she had attracted a rich foreigner. She was the third daughter in a family of three girls and a son. Her father was a government servant, and his income barely covered their needs. He was facing retirement in a couple of years, and with only one daughter married off, Safia knew her marriage would be a compromise. She wanted a fairy-tale wedding and a handsome husband. All this was going to be true now as this handsome, wealthy foreigner asked her father’s permission to marry her. Her father naturally wanted to meet the parents and he had promised to arrange a meeting as soon as possible, adding they would be coming down to Pakistan soon. Safia was excitedly counting down the days.
Unfortunately, her dreams were shattered when the media reported several cases - more than 600 Pakistani brides being exploited by Chinese men with promises of marriage. Safia’s parents were terrified and refused to marry her off to her online suitor. His attempts to convince them fell on deaf ears and thus Safia’s dream wedding was called off. Despite her protests, her father said he would rather have her single than sell her to be exploited.
Safia was probably saved a horrible life but there are so many vulnerable women who are preyed on by exploiters using social media. They find single girls, preferably from low-income background, and offer them marriage. With the economy going south and unemployment rate going high, girls prefer to get married to someone who can offer them a secure future.
In attempts to move to other countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Europe, etc. for a better life, many people fall into the hands of traffickers. These people have opportunities for low-skilled employment like domestic service; driving; agriculture; construction work that attracts these people. They also have false jobs through fake modelling and acting advertisements; sham recruitment agencies which may lead to sex trafficking and bonded labour in many countries to attract aspiring youth especially girls and then trafficked them for sex.
Unemployment rate in Pakistan has been rising since 2000 when it was 0.74 per cent to 4.65 per cent in 2020, according to Statista. Furthermore, economic analysts expect unemployment to continue to increase and are predicting it will be up to 4.7 per cent by the end of 2022.
Decades of poverty has forced thousands of desperate people, especially in the rural areas, to opt for migration. Labourers try to find a better life in urban areas - both local and foreign - and they will go to any extent to achieve this. Many people have taken fatal risks and paid with their lives as they are transported in the most inhumane way.
Many women, young girls and boys are exploited by sex traffickers and sold domestically and internationally – an industry that is quite lucrative for the exploiters.
According to provincial police reports, there were 32,022 trafficking victims in 2020, which was a significant increase from 19,954 from the previous year - 15,255 women, 9,581 men, 6,937 children, and 249 transgender victims. Out of the 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan, children are the most vulnerable making 70 per cent of bonded labourers in Pakistan. While a large part of young boys and girls are forced into sex trafficking.
There are many laws in place that can be used to control the problem of human trafficking and thousands of girls and boys can be saved from falling prey to sex trafficking. The only problem is that there is a lack of coordination and even awareness among the relevant government departments to form a holistic and workable structure to decrease domestic and international trafficking.
The infrastructure is in place but there is a major need to up haul the system and strengthen and recreate connections between government departments. The government needs to focus on the issue of human trafficking and to tackle this huge problem it could rope in the civil society and activists to move towards the solution.
These gaps and loopholes that we see in the government machinery when it comes to dealing with human trafficking were discussed at an event recently organised on the topic of Human Trafficking and Bonded Labour by Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO). Representatives of different government departments and private organisations came together and brainstormed on the different issues and possible solutions by studying and debating the different aspects. The participants came up with someone suggestions that would help improve the situation that was hampering the work that was being done against human trafficking and bonded labour in Pakistan.
Syed Kausar Abbas, Executive Director SSDO, said that his organisation was working hard to bring all stakeholders together to find solutions to important issues like Human Trafficking and Bonded Labour. “The organisation strives to highlight issues that can bring an improvement in the society and nudge the process so it moves faster. By bringing all the stakeholders from the government, civil society, and media etc. It wants not only to begin a dialogue on these issues but also campaigns to find workable solutions,” shared Abbas.
“There are many laws to tackle important issues like human trafficking and bonded labour but there seems to be a gap between the concerned different departments. Our organisation strives to bring all these experts together and improve coordination and sharing of important information to start consolidated and effective work,” he added.
Speaking about this, Waqar Haider Awan, Chief Executive, Complete Human Resource Solutions (CHRS), consultant and trainer stressed, “Human trafficking can be treated in two ways, internally or externally. Sections 11, 12 and 13 (of the Prevention of Trafficking of Persons Act, 2018) are available to tackle bonded labour but due to lack of awareness still, there is no implementation till now. Even the judiciary system is still in confusion about bonded and compelled labour.”
To give perspective to this, Sections 11-13 of the Prevention of Trafficking of Persons Act, 2018 provide ‘safety of victims and witnesses’ from such offences; ‘protection of victims and witnesses by the court’ and ‘compensation to victims’.
Shahla Qureshi, Director of Operations, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) another participant at the session said that human trafficking is an organised crime. “This issue can be addressed nationally or internationally as house labour, prostitution, sex trafficking, organ smuggling and drugs trafficking. This needs to be understood about this fabricated crime,” she voiced.
She further highlighted the issues of unemployment, poverty, absence of social safety, political instability, the status of violence against women and children.
An important issue that stops many survivors of women-oriented crimes from reporting the crime is the lack of women police personnel at police stations. Speaking about this, the SSP stated, “According to the 2014 and 2018 acts, there should be a strong mechanism built for reporting lines, female ASI or SI should be designated at the front desk for female facilitation; also, there should be a representation of females at the zonal and district level.”
SSP Shahla Qureshi and other officers are striving to implement a system that is women-friendly so that more and more women and girls are comfortable coming forward to seek help.
Another problem that many girls and women face when they are recovered is finding a safe place to stay after the preliminary process is completed. These girls and women should be sent to safe houses – an important point highlighted by Wali M. Qureshi of the Women Development Department. “Sections 4, 11, 12 and Rule 5 of Women Development provides a safe house exclusively to female victims who are not accused in any charge, they provide support in interrogation and give protection with the support of police. If a female witness of any criminal case seeks a safe house as per court order, the department provides them protection with the help of a lady constable,” he pointed out.
Currently, there are several government-run shelters for women: Islamabad Capital Territory has one family and rehabilitation centre for women and children; Punjab has one women’s shelters in each of its 36 districts; Sindh has five women’s shelters in its 29 districts and four centres which provide medical and legal aid and shelter for up to 72 hours; out of 26 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa only six have women’s shelters; Balochistan has one women’s shelter in its 32 districts.
Apart from the government provisions, safe houses like Panah Shelter House that are run by the civil society are also a good option. It is led by Uzma Noorani, who is the co-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and provides women with a safe shelter. Panah provides shelter to survivors of forced marriages; sexual abuse; exploitation; assault; domestic violence; threat of honour killing or those who want temporary refuge from other social injustices. Such shelter homes are required to provide traumatised survivors of domestic violence and abuse a change to lead a life with dignity
With joint groups of all stakeholders working together, there is hope that problems like human trafficking and bonded labour will be controlled. Women and young girls and boys will not be exploited by sex traffickers by preying on their vulnerabilities and poverty. The government will have to ensure that all the concerned departments work in cohesion to help decrease the number of victims from and in Pakistan.
The media needs to be trained on how to deal with news of human trafficking and bonded labour. It has a very important role in highlighting this issue both domestically and internationally so that there is more awareness.
The media’s vigilance may protect other people like Safia, who was saved from a life of exploitation, because the media was heedful in reporting how women were being duped by marriage and being trafficked. This is the role that the media needs to improve and spread, to save other women and young people from falling prey.
The police can share lists and details of predators – individuals and organisations – with the media to inform the public. The police also needs to be more active on social media, and form liaisons with the media to conduct widespread media awareness campaigns. Together, such crimes can be controlled, and precious lives can be saved.
*Name has been changed to retain privacy.