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NEWS - Rights-South Asia: White Sla

Rights-South Asia: White Slavery Still a Thriving Trade

               Inter Press Service

               KARACHI, (Dec. 29) IPS - They are
               kidnapped, "married" off to agents by
               unsuspecting parents, or enticed by
               prospects of a better life -- but these
               Bangladeshi and Burmese women end up
               in the brothels of Pakistan. 

               After making the perilous journey, often on
               foot across India, they would probably be
               luckier if sold into domestic slavery along
               with their children. But more likely, they
               are forced into abject prostitution by
               brothel owners. 

               The numbers involved in the trafficking of
               this human cargo are staggering: between
               100 to 150 women are estimated to enter
               Pakistan illegally very day. Few ever
               return to their homes in remote
               poverty-stricken areas which are the
               favorite hunting ground of the 'dalals' or

               Karachi-based advocate Zia Ahmed
               Awan, who is with the Lawyers for Human
               Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), estimates
               that there are over 200,000 undocumented
               Bangladeshi women in Pakistan, including
               some 2,000 in jails and shelters across the

               A Sindh police report in 1993 found that
               Bangladeshis comprise 80 percent, and
               Burmese 14 percent, of Karachi's
               undocumented immigrants. The report
               indicates that border police and other law
               enforcement agencies are well aware of
               the trafficking through entry points into
               Pakistan like Lahore, Kasur, Bahawalpur,
               Chhor and Badin. 

               "Yet no constructive, affirmative steps are
               taken by law enforcement agencies to
               prosecute traffickers and stop the
               exploitation of women and children at the
               hands of both police, agents and other
               individuals," Awan said. 

               Big money is involved in the trafficking of
               humans. In 1988, posing as a potential
               client, this correspondent found that the
               going price for a Bengali or Burmese
               woman was between 1,500 to 2,500 U.S.
               dollars -- depending on age, looks, docility
               and virginity. 

               The price has remained steady, as has the
               momentum of the "trade", thanks to the
               connivance of those tasked to prevent it.
               For each child or woman sold, the police
               is reported to claim a 15 to 20 percent

               In 1991, a reporter from the "Jang"
               newspaper, posing as a buyer, was
               assured that the police would not interfere
               and would even escort him back home
               with his purchase. "Where do you want to
               go? Rawalpindi, Gujrat, Lahore...
               Wherever you go, it is my responsibility.
               The police will not say anything," the
               reporter was told. 

               Media exposure has made the dalals
               slightly more wary, prompting them to
               closely check the credentials of "clients".
               The risks may even have contributed to a
               slight hike in prices. But the trade
               continues unabated and as openly as

               Every once in a while, the police make
               token raids into the dens and brothels of
               Karachi's notorious 'Bengali paras', or
               slums. If arrests are made, they are,
               ironically, of women and children, and
               never the agents who brought them there. 

               "The victims are further victimized by the
               police and the legal system, which treat
               them as criminals," said Zia Awan. The
               women are booked under Pakistan's
               controversial 'Hudood Ordinances',
               promulgated in 1981 by the late military
               dictator Gen Zia ul Haq. 

               The Zina Ordinance, which comes under
               the supposedly Islamic Hudood
               Ordinance, makes adultery or sex outside
               marriage a crime against the state. And
               because the women and girls recovered
               are usually prostitutes, they are often
               charged with Zina. 

               Sometimes, they are booked under the
               Passport Act. Either way, they have to
               spend long periods in prison. If released
               on bail, often through the efforts of lawyers
               like Awan, they are sent to
               government-run shelters for women such
               as the Darul Aman. 

               Privately-run homes such as that of the
               philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi "Apna
               Ghar" also exist, but are equally
               depressing and regimented. 

               "Some of the women in prison have to stay
               there way past expiry of their sentences
               because of the problems in repatriating
               them," said lawyer Nausheen Ahmed. "For
               illegal immigration, the sentence is four
               years, but many women end up serving
               three or four years extra, either waiting for
               trial or to clear immigration formalities,"
               she added. 

               "A major problem arises from the fact that
               the Bangladeshi government does not
               want to get involved," she explained. "It
               does not accept these undocumented
               people as citizens, since they have no
               legally recognized proof of citizenship." 

               Many are totally unlettered and unable to
               provide addresses back home. For those
               who are able to give such details,
               repatriation is hampered by government
               apathy and difficulty in tracing the
               addresses in remote rural areas. 

               "This is basically an economic problem,"
               commented the Chief Justice of the Sindh
               High Court, Justice Wajiuddin Ahmed, at
               a regional seminar on the issue, organized
               here last week by the LHRLA in
               collaboration with the U.N. Educational,
               Scientific and Cultural Organization

               Justice Wajiuddin noted the problem was
               related to the overall status of women in
               male-dominated South Asia, where
               women are often perceived as
               commodities or male property. 

               "As a Pakistani citizen, I am not worried
               about the numbers of women that arrive
               here -- there should be free movement
               and a free mixture of people," said the
               Chief Justice. "What is worrying is their
               plight, the difficulties they face, and how
               they are treated." 

               Justice Wajiuddin also noted the
               unfortunate role played by the police.
               "How many traffickers are caught and
               punished? "This trade will not end unless
               police and border officials do their duty
               instead of parading as thugs in police

               Participants at the workshop sought a
               more humane approach to curbing the
               problem of trafficking, calling for a change
               in law and terminology in order to
               de-criminalise undocumented rather than
               "illegal" migrants, and affected persons
               rather than "victims". 

               "We can't achieve anything unless the
               governments accept that it is their primary
               responsibility to stop the exploitation of
               women and children, and act upon this
               realization," said Mohini Giri, the dynamic
               director of the Women's Commission,
               headed by the Chief Justice of the
               Supreme Court of India. 

               "NGOs must act as a pressure group to
               make the government take this action,"
               she said. "What is needed is salvation
               from sexual exploitation, a transformation
               of attitudes, a change in laws, and quick
               measures of rehabilitation and