Asia

Legal empowerment the missing catalyst for human trafficking victims: Daily Star columnist

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – When you first read it, it may seem like something scripted for the silver screen: the story of a Bangladeshi woman who is struck by an awful tragedy-her 17-year-old daughter lured away by traffickers and forced to work in a brothel in India.

At her wit’s end, and with no support from anyone, the woman decides to take her fate into her own hands, going on a hero’s journey to save her. Taking the ultimate risk of being willingly trafficked to India by the same gang-yes, you read that right-she escapes from Delhi, travels around a thousand kilometres to Bihar, and pulls off a daring rescue of her child from the hands of the villains.

What makes for good content onscreen, unfortunately, translates into an extremely sombre reality. This is, of course, the story of a woman with immense fortitude and strength of character.

But it is also the story of yet another marginalised family that has fallen through the cracks, and yet another woman who was unable to access the system meant to help or protect victims like her daughter. It is only after her story became viral on social media that the Rapid Action Battalion, early last month, arrested three members of the gang that trafficked them.

According to a report in The Daily Star, this gang has allegedly trafficked over 200 girls and women into India over the past 8-10 years. So why did the authorities only apprehend them recently? The speed with which the arrests were made suggest this could have been done much sooner.

The reports surrounding this woman’s daring rescue mission do not clarify if she had reached out to local law enforcement agencies in order to get her daughter back. However, one can only imagine that the decision to get yourself trafficked to another country-opening yourself up to all kinds of risks, including being beaten, raped or even killed, with no idea of whether you will ever come back-is not one that is taken lightly.

So what happened? Did the police ignore her? Did she lack the financial capacity to convince the authorities to take her seriously? Did she think she would be discriminated against because of her humble background? Did she worry that, because of social stereotyping and patriarchal norms, her teenage daughter would be ostracised instead of being recognised as a victim?

Regardless of whether this woman reported her daughter’s trafficking or not, this incident raises serious questions about barriers to accessing justice in this country, especially for women from marginalised backgrounds.

The importance of social media in getting the attention of law enforcement agencies is also hugely disconcerting. Many will remember the horrific video of the gang rape of a woman in Noakhali that acted as a catalyst for the nationwide movement for justice for rape survivors.

In an interview to The Daily Star, the woman had said: “I went to the Member and told him that I am poor and I do not have the power to go to the police myself. I asked him to investigate the matter and seek justice on my behalf.” However, her appeal fell on deaf ears, and it was only after the video of her abuse went viral that four people were arrested for the crime.

In a similar fashion, the transnational gang that used TikTok to traffic women to India and force them into sex work was only uncovered after (Indian and Bangladeshi) police began investigating a viral social media post of a 22-year-old Bangladeshi woman being tortured and sexually assaulted in India.

As arrests were made on both sides of the border, one of the apprehended members of the ring admitted they had trafficked nearly 1,000 women in the last eight years. Is it possible that none of the family members of these women tried to take recourse to the law? How did this gang operate for so long, right under the noses of both Bangladeshi and Indian authorities, using digital spaces that are regularly monitored and policed in both the countries (often to the detriment of free speech)?

True, in all of these cases, the law enforcement agencies acted with a great deal of efficiency and speed-but only after an online outcry stirred them into action.

Trafficking is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Data suggests that around 400 women are trafficked out of Bangladesh every month. Some reports suggest that around 200,000 women and children have been trafficked out of the country over the past 10 years.

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Research from almost 20 years ago identified at least 18 transit points along the Bangladesh-India border-with the Benapole and Satkhira routes being the most commonly used. Yet, armed with this knowledge, and even after setting up the monitoring cell for human trafficking and several trafficking tribunals, Bangladesh has made very little headway in getting human trafficking under control.

These transit points are still being used regularly, as the investigation into the TikTok trafficking ring revealed-their victims were being held at “safe houses” in bordering districts such as Satkhira before being trafficked to India.

According to the US Department of State’s “Trafficking in Persons Report 2021,” Bangladesh prosecuted 517 suspected traffickers last year, but convicted only seven-and only one of them was convicted for sex trafficking.

Despite the existence of the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, 2012 and Bangladesh’s accession to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in 2019, there is a clear disconnect between our policies on paper and our actions on the ground.

The State Department report also wrote: “The number of convictions decreased, while law enforcement continued to deny credible reports of official complicity in trafficking, forced labour and sex trafficking of Rohingyas, and child sex trafficking, including in licensed brothels, and did not demonstrate efforts to identify victims or investigate these persistent reports.”

The report also suggested that the government made minimal efforts to assist Bangladeshi victims of trafficking abroad, and did not provide support to victims penalised for the unlawful acts they were forced to commit by their traffickers.

This is a fair assessment, given that at least six victims of the TikTok trafficking ring, including a minor, are reportedly still stranded in India, and only recently, seven Bangladeshi women who were trafficked to India and jailed for their “illegal entry” finally managed to return home after being imprisoned for two years.

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Saying that the issue of trafficking is complicated would be an understatement, and it is almost impossible to curb it without transnational cooperation. However, there is one common theme here on our end in Bangladesh-from having appeals disregarded by law enforcement officials to being left to languish in foreign prisons/shelters, the female victims of trafficking are still extremely vulnerable and are often ignored. And now their vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

According to a recent report in this daily, transnational trafficking syndicates are now specifically targeting women in city slums and selling them to brothels in India after promising them lucrative jobs.

In a country where labour trafficking syndicates continue to mushroom and flourish, and where such trafficking can even occur via official channels-the case of 14-year-old Kulsum, who was killed in Saudi Arabia in September 2020 after being sent there with false papers, comes to mind-it should come as no surprise that many vulnerable women are voluntarily going abroad in the hopes of employment, only to be trapped into sex slavery.

What is surprising is how little is being done to tackle this. There is much more to be said about the repatriation and rehabilitation of trafficking victims and the support that they deserve from their country, as well as about the creation of conditions within the country, so that women do not feel the need to take such dangerous decisions.

But before everything else, they must be able to access the formal justice system and the laws that are meant to protect them. It is high time state authorities seriously invested their time and effort into ensuring this legal empowerment.

  • Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. The Daily Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

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