She was barely 14, ten years ago, when she was lured away by her aunt from her family village near Dhaka. Since then, Reema has been sold so many times, married so many times that she has lost count. She does not even remember the name of her village anymore, only that her fathers name was Abdul. "After reaching Dhaka, my aunt told me to be prepared to go to Karachi, a big city with big cars, money and no hunger," she recalls.
This year´s unprecedented floods in Bangladesh brought misery and destitution to millions of families. But for the dalals, middlemen who smuggle women from Bangladesh to Pakistan, there is good business in floods. Far from the Padma-Jamuna delta, in a Karachi which received below-average rainfall this year, the pimps are rejoicing. "Let the flood waters in Bangladesh subside a little. New batches of girls will be here," says Rahim, a procurer of girls in Ali Akber Shah village, a Bengali slum near Karachi´s coast. For sure there will be more girls like Reema in the slums of Karachi next year.
Dalals like Rahim are at the end of a chain of human smuggling which still links the two separated parts of what was once Pakistan. Every year, thousands of Bengalis and even Burmese Arakanese girls (the Muslim Rohingya) are trafficked from Bangladesh, across the expanse of India, through the Thar desert into Sindh in Pakistan. Many are children when they arrive. They are forced into prostitution, sold or auctioned for marriages, or ´employed´ as bonded labour. All this happens with the connivance of police and border security forces in all three countries.
A survey by Pakistan´s Ministry of Interior indicates that there are two million illegal immigrants in Karachi alone. Out of these, 1.6 million are Bangladeshi migrants. An independent report by the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), a group which studies trafficking of women and children in South Asia, suggests that a large proportion of trafficked Bangladeshis are women. LHRLA estimates that there are more than 200,000 Bengali women in Pakistan. Says Zia Awan of LHRLA, "About 100 to 150 Bangladeshi women are smuggled into Pakistan as human cargo every day."
Memon Mohalla. On the sizzling hot night of 30 May 1998, the inhabitants of the Memon Mohalla locality in Hyderabad (Sindh) were shocked to see a young girl falling off the second storey balcony of a local chakla, or brothel. The Bangladeshi girl, Rabia, was attempting suicide. Earlier, she had been forcibly auctioned to the brothel owner, and had refused to service a customer.
Critically injured, Rabia was handed over to police custody and booked under Section 294 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which makes "illicit gestures and obscenity" cognisable offences. To avoid inquires about the injured girl from higher authorities and the press, the local police forced her to return to the brothel, which regularly pays them large sums of bhatta, or protection money. Says a sympathetic insider at the police station who did not want to be named, "The police threatened to book Rabia under the Foreigners Act, if not the more draconian Zina Ordinance." The Foreigners Act decrees a 10-year jail term, while the Ordinance, called "Enforcement of Hudood on Zina", introduced by the late dictator Gen Zia-ul Haq, runs as follows: "Zina, sex outside of marriage, is a crime against the state punishable by death by stoning, or up to 10 years of imprisonment and whipping up to 30 stripes and/or a fine."
According to Zia Awan, "The law makes no distinction between adultery and rape, and for both you need four witnesses, all of whom have to be male. If unable to prove rape, the court takes the victim´s statement as confession of adultery, and so it is the woman who is punished." Together with Rabia, thousands of Bengalis and Burmese women, and even minor children, are common victims of these laws in today´s Pakistan.
Zia-ul Haq Colony. Perhaps justice has in small part been served by the fact that the large Bengali neighbourhood in Karachi, which has developed a well-known red light district, is known as Zia-ul Haq Colony. Walking down the dilapidated byways of this "mini-Bangladesh of Karachi", one could just as easily be in Dhaka. Men and women wear clothes of the delta country, restaurant signboards are in Bangla script, and Bangla songs blare from roadside shops. Here, only the policemen seem non-Bengali.
Meena is from Sherpur in Bangladesh, now living in Zia-ul Haq Colony. She was married off to her cousin Noor-us Salam Sadiq, who offered her "work in Pakistan". Sadiq took Meena and 14 other women in a caravan through the Porbander area of Gujarat into the Pakistani Thar. Recalls Meena, "We crossed the border in the dark by foot. We were taken to a desolate place. Some of us who were pretty were sexually abused. We were kept there for a long time until another batch of girls arrived from India." After 10 days or so their group arrived near the Federal ´B´ area of Karachi, where they were forced into the sex trade. Meena managed to escape with the help of neighbours, who deposited her at a shelter, one of many run by the social worker Abdus Sattar Edhi. "A generation of babies has been born in our shelters," says Bilquis Edhi, who looks after helpless women and unclaimed babies in the Karachi rehabilitation homes. "Those who were babies when they were trafficked are themselves mothers now."
Sundarta Bazaar. There is an ugly, narrow lane called Sundarta Bazaar - literally, Beauty Bazaar - in Machhar colony, a Bengali slum in the heart of Karachi. The ´available´ women wear heavy make-up. "It is free to look. But you have to pay 50 rupees if you want to touch her," says a small-time pimp named Rahim. The most powerful pimp in the colony is Soni Dallal, wife to the notorious Sher Khan who claims to have given up his "previous job" to become an Islamic missionary.
Buyers and bystanders jostle each other in Sundarta Bazaar. Some strike deals, while others try to haggle. Middle-aged Muhammed Sajan mutters, partly to himself, "I´ll get one from my village. That´ll be relatively cheaper." He comes from the desert area bordering India, from the villager of Nagar Parker, and is shopping for a bride. He confesses his predicament, "I have no sister to barter, nor enough money to buy a bride for myself." Buying and marrying trafficked Bangladeshi women has become quite common among his Khoso tribe in Nagar Parker, says Sajan, which is how he got the idea of purchasing one for himself. There are by now more than a dozen Bangladeshi wives in his village, he says. To barter a girl in the family in lieu of a bride or to buy a bride in cash are customary practices in many arts of Pakistan. Earlier, northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan were the sources of women who were trafficked southward into the Indus plains. The ´customary sale´ of girls and women from upcountry north, known as waiver, has now been replaced by trafficked females from Bangladesh. Marrying and buying women from Bangladesh is the present trend, and is even considered ´macho´. A police official proudly tells the tale of purchasing, selling and reselling, and finally gifting a Bengali girl called Shahno to his friend in the feudal interior of Sindh province.
Rural Sindh and Punjab. The desert areas of Sindh and Punjab provinces bordering India are the biggest centres of trade in trafficked women. "We marry Bengali women because they are intelligent and have great poise," says Muhammad Saifal, a villager from the desert area of Khipro. The going rate at the auctions is upto PKR 120,000 (USD 2200), with the agent asking 6000 rupees commission on each sale, while the police get their customary take of ´5 percent´. What the Bengali woman or girl gets from it is a husband or master. If she is lucky, he will be decent.
Fatima and her two teenage daughters Reena and Shivli were auctioned separately. Fatima managed to escape and approached the police at Dera Ghazi Khan, who sent her to a shelter at Sohrab Goth, Karachi. She has spent the last six months unsuccessfully trying to trace her daughters, who were bought by influential locals in Southern Punjab.
The women tend to be sold and resold several times. The ´traders´ are always ready to carry out a transaction when a owner tires of a woman. "We live the life of total shame," says Laila, a Bengali sold to a family in rural Sindh. However, when asked if she wants to return to Bangladesh, her reply is emphatic: "No!" Obviously, repatriation is not a solution. "The problem does not end once they return to their homeland," says social worker Nazish Brohi. "Back home, they would have to deal with the inevitable stigmatisation. Many of them would have left unwed, and would be returning with a child. There would be no prospect of marriage or settling down. Who would want to go through it?"
And so, as long as poverty pushes Bangladeshi women out of their home country, and as long as there is the pull factor of Pakistani men on the lookout for women to own and exploit, this trans-continental trafficking of girls and women will continue.
Over in the desert of Thar, it is a common sight to come upon human skeletons among the sand dunes of the India-Pakistan border. These are those from the smugglers´ caravans who got lost or died of thirst and hunger. Others could have just been abandoned. Many of the skeletons are tiny. They were children.
Coverage of trafficking in this issue was supported by the Panos Institute
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).