‘Stolen lives’: The dark reality of human trafficking

Human trafficking is a serious crime that involves the exploitation of individuals for the purpose of forced labour or sexual exploitation. It is a form of modern-day slavery and is considered to be one of the most egregious human rights violations.

The UN trafficking in persons protocol defines human trafficking as, “the recruitment, transport, transfer harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat, or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” Simply put, it is the exploitation of a person done though some form of manipulation. The victims of trafficking may be any group, gender, or ethnicity although those targeted by traffickers are vulnerable in some way. This vulnerability might be psychological or emotional vulnerability but can also be due to the lack of a social safety net, poverty, natural disasters or political instability. 

Trafficked persons are exposed to a range of problems. Not only might they experience physical violence and psychological abuse, but they are also subject to poor living conditions and exposed to several diseases. The type of exploitation suffered may have long lasting consequences on their physical, reproductive, and mental health. Moving on to how human trafficking is a cultural issue; it needs to be understood how human trafficking is gender specific. Most victims tend to be young girls or women- engaged in sexual trafficking while men tend to be victims of labor trafficking. It is however important to note that due to cultural stigma, many men are hesitant to call themselves a victim of human trafficking- particularly sexual trafficking which may affect statistics.

Human trafficking is influenced by societal norms, beliefs and attitudes that shape behaviors and perceptions related to victimization and exploitation. Human trafficking is thus embedded within cultural contexts which influences perceptions of gender, economic opportunities, and societal norms, which can in turn perpetuate trafficking. The patriarchal structures prevalent in many societies even today influences the position of women- oftentimes due to gender roles, women will be seen as inferior or disposable. When women are seen as commodities, it allows a culture where exploitation of women is normalized. 

Some of these issues that make women more vulnerable to trafficking is a lack of employment opportunities, gendered poverty, lack of control over financial resources and limited access to education. Particularly in areas where women might be dependent on male figures economically, death of caregivers, or divorce if the caregiver is a husband, will make them susceptible to trafficking. This coupled with a lack of jobs for those women that aren’t educated or skilled will push women to seek employment in unregulated and informal sectors and end up being victim to human trafficking.  Child marriages or forced marriages have also become a part of some cultures which makes women vulnerable as they might be exploited by their partners for domestic servitude or run away, ending up in the hands of traffickers. Gender-based violence coupled with cultures that normalize such violence contributes to this cycle as well. 

Additionally, cultural norms prioritizing wealth and success may drive individuals to seek risky and informal opportunities, Cultural attitudes towards migration may also play a significant role as it may be seen in some cultures as a means of escaping poverty or conflict. Human trafficking is a major problem for many countries in the world. In China for instance, not only are Chinese individuals trafficked for labor, but bride trafficking is practiced. Due to the one child policy, the ratio of males to females became highly disproportionate as families preferred to have sons. Many men in China now, are unable to marry because of the lack of women. Hence brides are trafficked at a cheap cost while unaware of the reality of the situation. Some of these brides are then exposed to physical and sexual abuse as well as forced labor if not sold off to human trafficking gangs which are rampant in the country. 

In Europe as well, sex trafficking has become an organized crime with a large number of women ending up in the harmful cycle. In Ghana, trokosi slaves are one form of human trafficking. Families as repentance for their crimes, will send their daughters to priests who will then be forced to perform sexual acts or hard labor. As it is a cultural and religious practice, it hasn’t been outlawed despite slavery being illegal. Similarly, in Niger, there is a practice of ‘fifth wives’. Islam allows a maximum of four wives but to circumvent this law, women are kept as unofficial ‘fifth wives’ and enslaved in domestic or sexual servitude without pay. This too has become a cultural practice, difficult to prohibit. Similar forms of slavery exist all over the world.

When it comes to Pakistan, the issue of trafficking is also multidimensional as it is a recruiting ground for those trafficked and sent to the Gulf states, as well as a destination point for victims from Bangladesh, Burma, Afghanistan, etc. Traffickers also use Pakistan as a transit point for those bought from east Asia and Bangladesh. The bulk of Pakistan’s modern slavery entails labor exploitation, occurring in the forms of child labor, bonded labor and forced labor. Bonded labor is a form of debt bondage where families or persons will be tied to a landowner or factor owner to repay a debt which is exploitative in nature due to the exorbitant interest rates which essentially make the debt unpayable. (called the Peshgi system).

This has become a normalized part of the culture despite it being prohibited by the constitution of Pakistan. It is prevalent in agriculture and brick kilns, tanning and carpet industries, particularly in areas of Sindh where a feudal structure prevails and landlords have immense political and economic influence, not only over the victims but also over the police and judicial systems. Child labor and exploitative is also a normalized part of Pakistani societies, making labor trafficking victims visibly invisible. Many domestic workers live with their employees, dependent on them for shelter and food, making them especially susceptible to exploitation. 

Further Pakistan’s predominantly patriarchal society also allows for women to be seen as disposable commodities. Issues of domestic violence, child marriages, forced marriages and conversions push women towards human trafficking unknowingly. Another reason for the issue of human trafficking to be so prevalent is the normalization of begging. A high number of children are kidnapped and forced into begging to obtain and economic gain for their ‘employers’. The patriarchal society, the violation of fundamental human rights, domestic labor, social exclusion, and lack of awareness are major factors contributing to the problem of trafficking in Pakistan. 

Addressing human trafficking as a cultural issue involves challenging norms and beliefs that perpetuate exploitation. Educational and awareness campaigns can help change societal attitudes. Empowering vulnerable communities through economic opportunities and social support systems can also mitigate the factors that make people susceptible to trafficking. Human trafficking is an organized crime and should therefore be managed in a systemic and organized manner. It is an illegal business and must be dealt with as such, since all businesses work on a demand and supply structure, understanding where the demand for human trafficking comes from is essential particularly when it comes to sexual trafficking. When women are seen as commodities, sexual labor will remain a demand. Prohibiting prostitution or at the very least increasing registration and support for sex workers is essential. Along with this it is important to challenge traditional gender roles and combat unequal power dynamics. Educating the younger population and promoting gender equality is a long-term solution to allow persons to be seen as individuals- not as objects providing economic gain.

Challenging societal norms that normalize such exploitation is necessary. This can be done not only through awareness but by tailoring laws and punishing traffickers suitably. Corruption rampant in the police and judicial system also allows this issue to remain unresolved. Victims should be protected and destigmatized. Registration for brick kilns and other industries where there is a history of human trafficking should be increased. Solving human trafficking requires a multifaceted approach involving prevention, protection and prosecution. This includes providing support to victims, strengthening law enforcement efforts and addressing root causes such as poverty and inequality. 

The author is a student of A levels.

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