Pakistan’s closeted human trafficking slavery problem

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The conversation about human trafficking and slavery needs to happen more frequently

Pakistan sits at a very uncomfortable position when it comes to human trafficking and slavery. The Global Slavery Index 2013 highlighted the country as the third worst place for forced and bondage labour, falling only behind India and China.

Slavery of course isn’t as simple as buying or selling a human being — in Pakistan it takes the shape of bonded labour. The population of slaves is made up of members of religious minorities and the lower castes, children, refugees, and most importantly, women. Most cases of bonded labour are a result of a versatile mix of problems. Poverty, illiteracy and unemployment often push people into debt. That debt is paid off by bonded labourers who are looking to work off their debt. Often the debts are not as high as the amount of work such people are forced to do. The alarming part of this equation is the sexual abuse that takes place.

While provisions have been put into place by the government to deal with the issue of slavery, there is little to no implementation of most of the laws. Any progress is sluggish at best, and results stemming from these laws are yet to be seen. Despite this, in some cases, even the laws can achieve very little. This is especially true in the case of slaves that are sexually abused and/or forced into prostitution.

The worrying part is that we have no real statistics on the number of women that are living as slaves or bounded labourers. We additionally have no real statistics on how many of these women are forced to live as sex slaves.

The worrying part is that we have no real statistics on the number of women that are living as slaves or bounded labourers. We additionally have no real statistics on how many of these women are forced to live as sex slaves. Running away or ‘quitting’ is often not an option as it is met with dire consequences. It’s a chain of abuse that cannot be broken easily. During 2002, Pakistan passed the “Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance”, which sees all forms of trafficking as illegal. The ordinance outlines offences of a sexual nature under exploitative entertainment. It states that, “exploitative entertainment means all activities in connection with human sports or sexual practices or sex and related abusive practices”. In spite of its provisions, the ordinance fails to practically perform the task it was meant to.

Sexual slavery is actually even advocated at times by some who take to citing religious scriptures, although that does not change the fact that it is absolutely illegal as per the law in Pakistan. It is a large problem much like the issue of child marriages which is often swept under the rug because of support from the religious quarters. Of course, bonded labour and sexy slaves do not by any margin enjoy the same support, but they are also not as vehemently opposed as they should be.

Women who are raped would traditionally appeal to the courts under section 375 and 376 that deal with the subject. 375 outlines rape as sexual intercourse that occurs against a woman’s will, without her consent, through consent that was acquired by threat or through fear tactics, and when she consents believing the man to be her husband. The punishment for rape is not less than 10 years and can go up to 25. Rape can also be punished through death. Gang rapes will be punished through life imprisonment or death. In theory these laws make sense, in theory these laws seem adequate, however, the practical world we live in is quite different.

Earlier this year PPP Senator Syeda Sughra Imam raised the issue of conviction rates when it comes to rape cases. In the past five years we’ve had no convictions. And the numbers that we have are not for bonded labour cases, or forced prostitution cases. When it is impossible for a women who have access to judicial structures to get a conviction, what course of action is left for someone who serves as someone’s slave. The ground reality is that despite the laws, it would be near impossible for such women to get out of the situation they find themselves in. They would have no access to any judicial structure to begin with.

Earlier this year PPP Senator Syeda Sughra Imam raised the issue of conviction rates when it comes to rape cases. In the past five years we’ve had no convictions. And the numbers that we have are not for bonded labour cases, or forced prostitution cases.

Pakistan’s current situation is made trickier because slaves aren’t just trafficked from within the country to other areas, or to other countries — Pakistan also has to deal with the influx of trafficked women and girls from Central Asian countries and Bangladesh. So we aren’t just dealing with Pakistani women that we have put in these positions, we have a wider spectrum of abuse going on.

There is the added problem of widespread underreporting of rape or sexual violence in every province. Punjab has the highest number of rape cases reported and even those figures are thought to be a mere fraction of the actual numbers. In the case of bonded labourers, we don’t even know how many of these women exist, all we have are estimates. The likelihood is that they have never been able to find a voice, and as things stand the situation doesn’t seem as though it would go in their favour if they chose to speak up.

Pakistan has to get serious about the provisions it has set in place for slaves, trafficking and bonded labour. Even though UN trafficking protocols exist, Pakistan has neither implemented them nor attempted to adopt them. It is the need of the hour for it to do so. Apart from this, the existing laws need to be revisited in terms of their practicality. The best laws in the world become useless if they are not being implemented.

It is also important that there is an actual study of the prevalence of slavery in the country. At present all we have got are estimates and not any concrete numbers. There is no way to access or help women that are stuck in bonded labour unless we know how many there are. These women also need to be educated as to their rights as human beings. Telling them what sexual abuse is and what they should do will simply not be enough, however. Till rape laws and attitudes toward sexual violence change there is no helping any woman, bonded labour or not.