Nepal was the original maker of the myth of trafficking in the regional and international community. Gita and her drugged Frooti established the precedent in South Asia for heart- and wallet-wrenching sensationalism. The persistence of the myth has put Nepals discourse significantly behind that of other South Asian countries. While the majority of attention on trafficking is placed on several “danger districts”, which happen to surround Kathmandu Valley, it is painfully obvious that these sparsely-populated districts cannot account for the large number of Nepali girls and women selling sex in India. Nepal has a number of maturing rural NGOs which have significant knowledge of trafficking patterns across the country, but their knowledge has generally been ignored because the trafficking arena is dominated by Kathmandu-based “power NGOs” and international donors in their thrall.
The perception of “trafficking” has evolved very little over the last decade. Among NGOs and government people, there is a strong denial of families direct, willing involvement in selling their children; in general, families are conceived to have been either duped or coerced by abject poverty. Those fighting trafficking almost universally deny that the girls involved may have prior knowledge that they are going to enter sex work. In-country trafficking is ignored, despite evidence from grassroots NGOs and international-NGOS that traffickers are “shopping” in the hills for girls to serve in the brothels of Biratnagar, Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Recently, the matter of migrant labour has entered the consciousness of Nepali discussants. As in Sri Lanka, there is concern that migrant women workers unwittingly enter prostitution. Unlike in Sri Lanka, the number of women migrants, their destinations and their level of welfare are still largely unknown. Filling the vacuum, the media are beginning to play “I was raped by my boss” tapes, which promise to monopolise the trafficking discourse, drowning out other significant issues of female migrant labour. As with Nepali girls knowing entry into prostitution in Nepal and India, activists are mute about the Nepalis willingly seeking sex work overseas, despite public knowledge that for years Nepali women have been going for sex work in Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
In the last several years, the discussion relating to trafficking has evolved rapidly in India, albeit mostly within the media and NGOs. International donors and state and national governments still cling to the concept of universal hard trafficking. India has had more opportunity than other South Asian countries to develop a viable, truthful picture of girls entry into prostitution: neither the media nor NGOs feel obliged to agree to a national consensus on the problem. Journalists and activists in, say, Tamil Nadu or Bengal are inclined to more deeply assess the situation of “their girls”, and create a local discourse on trafficking and entry into prostitution. Thus, we have begun to see serious consideration of bonded labour vis-a-vis trafficking in West Bengal and Bihar, and of caste marginalisation vis-a-vis trafficking in Karnataka.
While shrill screams about hard trafficking are still heard in India, they are being supplanted to an extent by awareness and discussion of soft trafficking, particularly the matter of willing family involvement. A few years ago, those involved in fighting trafficking would have trundled out the poor Bedias, Rajnats, Banjaras and Devadasis as examples of naughty families who send their children into hell. Today, it is increasingly accepted that sending daughters to the brothels to send home rupees is, and has long been, a widespread response to rural poverty. In this, Indias self-realisation is approaching the level of Thailands seven or eight years ago, when Thai activists accepted that prostitution was a very common form of filial obligation.
Unlike the case in Nepal and Bangladesh, it is difficult for Indian activists to blame another country for forcing their children into prostitution. India is clearly not a major flesh exporter and thus, the Indian discourse has not flown the flag of japed migrant women workers as have Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and now Nepal. While migrant women workers are a growing topic of concern, they are discussed by the media, NGOs, international NGOs and government in relatively sober and realistic terms. In this, the Indian experience is similar to the present-day Sri Lanka discourse. Unlike in Nepal, Indian discussants are able to openly admit the very high proportion of tribals and scheduled castes in prostitution.
The unique problems of its women and children have created a variant discourse in Sri Lanka, much of which is the most refined in the Subcontinent. The country exports a major proportion of its women to foreign countries as domestic servants, and has done so for years. Concerns for these women, whose earnings provide a substantial share to the national economy, have given rise to solid research and to extensive coverage by Sri Lankas generally sensible media. Articulate NGOs have emerged to advocate womens legal rights. For these reasons, Sri Lankas trafficking discourse, while it includes the sexual abuse and prostitution of migrant women workers, leads the Subcontinent on the broader issues of migrant labour “trafficking”.
Sri Lankas trafficking discourse has also been informed by its regionally unique problem of having developed as a centre of sex tourism for boy prostitutes. Until recently, exclusive focus on this has diverted attention from female prostitution. Although prevalent, very little is known today about female prostitution in Sri Lanka; little research has been conducted and it has got minimal media coverage. (Similarly, and perhaps for the same reasons, Sri Lankas AIDS discourse is quite undeveloped.)
Trafficking of boys to Europe by sleazy foreigners is a part of the discourse, but has never developed into a full-blown myth, such as Nepals Gita myth. The war in Sri Lanka has been integrated into the trafficking discourse; along with “poor up-country” children, war orphans are trafficked domestically to Colombo and the seaside sex resorts. The numbers are not immense, and their significance is probably exaggerated when taken into account the many coastal village children who are drawn into the sex tourism industry.
While in the past Sri Lankans have been concerned with the abuse of young boys on their own turf by foreigners, a new area of concern has opened up recently. It is not a matter of trafficking, but of domestic child sexual abuse. All participants in the discourse – the media, NGOs, donors and the government — are now admitting that domestic paedophilia is a greater problem than, and a likely precursor to, sex tourism. The incidence of domestic child sexual abuse has been demonstrated by good research, which has been followed by efficient exposure in the media. The matter is being carefully addressed by NGOs, with the help of their Philippine counterparts, among others. While India is beginning to admit to the existence of domestic child sexual abuse, and Nepal and Pakistan generally still deny it, Sri Lanka has already created a solid discourse and is conducting effective interventions.
For the last decade, the Bangladesh discourse has been dominated by the trafficking of its women across India to Pakistan, some also continuing on to the Middle East. The discussion has generally been quite muddled until recently. The media and fund-hungry NGOs have tried to present a myth of girls hard trafficked into prostitution in Pakistan and the Middle East, but this has been difficult to maintain for a couple of reasons. One is that “trafficking” is a difficult word to apply to an underground transportation system that has been established for decades, primarily to maintain labour movement and family contact between the former East and West Pakistans. People from both sides have moved in both directions for years, depending on economic opportunity, political pressure and family obligations.
The other difficulties in creating a hard trafficking scenario are that the majority of those who move along the trafficking route from Bangladesh to Pakistan are adult women, often with children, and that the majority are going knowingly as labourers and end up as labourers, not prostitutes. Pakistan does not have a high demand for Bangladeshi prostitutes, certainly not one matching Indias demand for Nepali prostitutes. Making the discourse even more difficult for the hard trafficking myth-makers is the high incidence of Bangladeshi women ending up in debt servitude in Pakistan. Thus, a simplified prostitution-victim discourse such as Nepals has not been sustainable; the towering trafficking problem is bonded labour, not prostitution. In the last couple of years, however, Bangladeshs sophisticated NGOs have been fielding a refined discourse that defines trafficking in a broader sense to include the manifold problems of migrant women labour.
Bangladesh leads the region in including domestic bonded labour in its discussion of trafficking. Excellent research and some good media coverage have exposed the tsukri system of debt bondage, and middle levels of the government and some donor agencies have listened, even if they have not yet responded. Moreover, being a country like India that does not import sex workers, the discourse is fully cognisant of in-country trafficking. Perhaps more than any South Asian country, activists in Bangladesh are aware of where girls come from and where they end up in prostitution.
Pakistan has the least developed trafficking discourse of any South Asian country, for good reason – it has been primarily concerned with, and has taken very seriously, the issues of violence against the average woman. Pakistans extremely sophisticated womens rights NGOs have developed in response to the strictures of Muslim law and powerful local customary practices, behind which many incidents of female abuse are hidden.
With the dominant aim of addressing violence against women and the reluctance of the media and the government to openly discuss prostitution in any but abhorrent terms, the trafficking discourse is small and occupies relatively less space in media, NGO, donor and government agendas than in the other South Asian countries. The same can be said for the HIV/AIDS discourse. While female prostitution within the country is little discussed (although not denied), there is still an almost total absence of discussion on the highly-prevalent male prostitution, as is the case in India.
The trafficking scenario in Pakistan is generally typified by women (not necessarily girls) going to the Gulf States as migrant labourers, then being abused. In this, Pakistans discussion shares much with Sri Lankas. With Bangladesh, these two countries are expanding the trafficking discourse to address the wider problems of migrant women workers. Domestic, in-country trafficking into bonded labour (rather than prostitution) is a viable part of Pakistans expanded trafficking discourse.
Small but capable research, some decent investigative journalism, and reports and interventions by NGOs and Pakistans Human Rights Commission have clarified the picture of domestic trafficking in the country and brought the issue to the forefront. Thus in Pakistan, the hard-trafficking-for-prostitution discourse is relatively unimportant. It may become even more sidelined if the proposed reversion to Shariat takes effect and decreases the freedom of the average woman.