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Sold into a nightmare

The ordeal of one survivor of child trafficking highlights how the dangerous practice persists in plain sight

By Shazia Mehboob |
PUBLISHED June 25, 2021
ISLAMABAD:

For any responsible and loving parent, their child represents the centre of their life. They go to great lengths, or at least as much as means permit, to provide their offspring the best chances and opportunities in life. Even more crucially, they take all available measures to keep them from harm of any kind.

There is only so much parents can do by themselves when it comes to protection that is where the state is supposed to step in. But while a legal framework for child protection may be present in Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of kids continue to fall victim to trafficking and abuse year on year, in one form or another.

Now 18 years of age, survivor Asim* was one among the many whose tender years were marked a long pattern of neglect, violence and sexual abuse. Like many others who suffered, he too found himself utterly helpless and unable to report his plight.

Neglect starts at home

It took Asim, a survivor of child sexual abuse, 12 years to open up about his ordeal. “I was only six years old when my stepfather, who used be a paternal uncle of mine, sold me into the hands of a stranger. I didn’t know what price he charged for me as I was too young to understand such matters,” he told The Express Tribune.

“He wanted to capture my parents property, of which I was only shareholder as in our tribe girls rarely get share in the ancestor’s property,” Asim said. His nightmare started the day he followed his stepfather’s instructions. “One day, he asked me to take the next school day off. He pretended he would take me to a nearby resort for a picnic along with the children of his friend,” he recounted. “I told him my mother would not allow it, but he instruct me to feign an illness. I being so young trusted him and followed the instructions.”

According to Asim, his stepfather took him to the Quetta railway station where another man was waiting for them. “Hurriedly, because the train that stranger wanted to catch was about to leave, I was handed over to him,” he recalled. “I was told that this man would take me to the picnic along with his own kids and bring me back home by evening.”

“I had no idea I was being sold and I only found out why when my stepfather confessed his crime before his sisters,” Asim shared. “I still do not know what price that stranger paid for me.”

The promised picnic would end turning into a cross-country trip as the stranger who ‘bought’ Asim took him from his hometown of Quetta to Okara in Punjab. “Even at such a young age, I could sense that something bad had happened to me. But I felt so helpless before my stepfather and that stranger. I could do nothing but go along,” he said, remembering with pain the years of abuse that would follow.

‘Adopted’ and sold again

According to Asim, his physical and mental torment began as soon as he reached the stranger’s house. “There was no other person at that house but that man and his wife. The couple was childless and brought me in as an adopted child,” he shared.

Or so they said. Asim said both the man and his wife made a habit out of treating him brutality. “So much so that I made many attempts to escape. But since I was so young, all those attempts fail and I was caught and brought back every time.”

After about a year, the couple sold Asim to another man from Lahore for about Rs 150,000. A few days later, he learned that he was now among people involved in the prostitution business.

“The second buyer brought me to a bungalow where a woman was running a prostitution business,” he said. “She was strange in her appearance and style, and also changed my appearance. She transformed my look from a boy to a girl completely,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to change my appearance, but I was helpless as there was no one who could help me out from this oppression.”

Asim still doesn’t remember the name of the locality where was trafficked due to his young age at the time. He only remembers that everyone living in the locality was ‘involved in the same business’. “Every day, she would put makeup on my face, dress me up like a girl and hand me over to a customer,” Asim said. “I knew what was happening to me was horrible, but I was so scared. I could do nothing to stop the ‘customers’.”

The price of freedom

Asim’s new ordeal would carry on for another year. In that time, in addition to mental and physical torment, he would suffer a bout of Hepatitis C. “My health was deteriorating day by day, because of neglect and abuse,” he shared. It may have been the end, had it not been for ‘sympathetic customer’, he recalled.

“One customer helped me get back in touch with my sister in Quetta. I told her my entire ordeal and she arrived soon after,” Asim said. “To secure my release, my sister had to pay as much as Rs300,000 to my captors… double the amount paid for me when I was sold into this sordid business. But she was able to take me back to Quetta.”

Tragedy would not yet end for Asim, however. Upon returning home, he learnt that his mother had passed away and all four of his sisters had been married off. The property that was supposed to be his inheritance and could have helped him when he came of age had been distributed.

“Three of my sisters were with their husbands’ families. Neither my brothers-in-law nor my own sisters, except one, were ready to keep me with them,” he said. Due to the humiliating attitude of his immediate relations, Asim left the house after a few weeks. “I still remember, it was a really chilly time of the year and my health was worsening. I took shelter at a makeshift roadside shelter inhabited by an old man.”

Asim narrated his ordeal to the old man who allowed him to stay until he got better but there was nothing to have and keep himself warm from the severe cold. He stayed there for few days in the makeshift shelter until his elder sister found him in worsening condition.

“She took me to her in-laws’ house and requested them to allow me to stay at there, but with strings attached,” he said. “I worked for them from morning to night but still their behaviour wasn’t good with me.”

Even with family, Asim was not safe from sexual harassment. “I was alone at home one day with my sister’s brother-in-law and he called me into his room and demanded favours,” Asim said. “When I refused, he made it appear as if I was the offender and demanded I leave the house. My sister protested, but that only made her husband divorce her and kick her out as well with her two young children.”

In search of shelter

Asim is currently living at a government-run shelter home in Rawalpindi and has spent over eight years at a child protection bureau in Lahore. He is under treatment with a therapist for his childhood trauma, which according to him has seriously damaged his adult life in many ways. “I never felt safe after the incident and grew up hating myself, thinking that it was my fault. If I had obeyed my mother and not taken that one day off from school, I feel I could have avoided this nightmare,” he shared.

He is now a grade 10 student and wishes to become a psychologist by profession in order to help children who have been victims of sexual abuse. “I don’t want any child victim of sexual abuse to live his/her entire life in a trauma like me,” he said. “Throughout my life, I felt isolated and petrified. Even at a shelter home, I felt that no child liked my friendship. Even my own sisters who could take a stand and provide me protection, left me with no choice but to stay here.”

State of abuse

In Pakistan, eight children stood victim of sexual abuse every day in 2020 in one form or the other. According to the Sahil 2020 report, children who are most vulnerable to abuse belong to the age group 6. Additionally, more than 80 per cent of the abusers are known to the children. In most of the cases, abusers are either acquaintances or service providers like teachers, shopkeepers, and drivers.

A report by the National Initiative Against Organised Crime (NIOC) identified that while multiple forms of domestic human trafficking occur in Pakistan, sexual exploitation and bonded labour are more common. “The highest number of trafficking victims belongs to different vulnerable groups including women, girls, young boys and children. They are trafficked and exploited in following illegal ways, which are orchestrated by crime syndicates, and (in case of bonded labour) by legitimate businesses,” it pointed out.

According to the report, human trafficking is extensive in scale and scope and happens most of the time unnoticed in a rural to urban pattern. When it comes to trafficking for sexual exploitation, the report noted that this vulnerable group also includes adolescent boys, who are mostly runaway children. It identified sexual abuse at schools as one of the primary factors “triggering the ‘runaway’ leaning in young boys and girls”. Another study of 100 commercial sex workers in Lahore found that 47 of them were in the age group of 15-25.

Furthermore, a report by the NGO Sahil reported that when it came to abduction cases and missing children, the 11-15 age group remained most vulnerable in Pakistan.

Laws but no action

According to Member National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) Iqbal Dheto, “The laws are fine and new amendments further strengthen them but the state needs to provide resources to ensure its implementation in true letter and spirit. Since these resources are not sufficient, it emboldens the abusers to carry out his/her criminal activities.”

The articles 25A, 8 to 28 and 113 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) ensure children’s fundamental rights while Articles 37A, 38A and 253 provide protection against abuses, he explained. Under Section 364-A of the PPC, if a person abducts a child under the age of 14: ‘in order that such child may be murdered or subjected to grievous hurt, or slavery, or to the lust of any person shall be punished with death or with imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and shall not be less than seven years.’

Under the new law, offenders will be sentenced to at least 10 years behind bars and upto a maximum of life imprisonment. Under Section 328 of the PPC, the denial of the rights of a child under the age of 12 years is a criminal offence with a minimum three and maximum seven years of punishment along with penalties and punishments, added Iqbal Dheto.

On a question regarding jurisdiction of enforcement agencies to investigate such cases, Dheto responded that earlier it was Federal Investigation Agency’s jurisdiction but the new law gives power to the police as an executor of child sexual abuse cases.

“Laws evolve, for instance there was a time when nobody was ready to even discuss the issue child sexual abuse but today if any such incident occurred, it not only gets coverage in media with strong condemnations and criticism of civil society but survivor families report such incidents because of the law, which identifies boundaries of a child’s rights and consequently punishment of an executor for violations and abuser for his/her criminal offence,” he added

The government is also in the process setting up a helpline and the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency, which will issue alerts on missing children and maintain an online database.

Due to previous instances of police inaction, lethargy and insensitivity in handling such cases, they will now be required to register an FIR within two hours of receiving a complaint by parents, while special courts will ensure a trial is completed within three months.

Despite receiving an overwhelming majority of votes in the Senate, there was some continued opposition from the usual suspects. For now, however, all victories, big and small, count. According to the bill, upon receiving information that a child is missing, the officer in charge of the police station will reduce the same into writing in the same manner as prescribed for a cognizable offence under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), and will be mandated to start an investigation of the case and recover the missing child. According to the bill, special courts will be bound to decide sexual abuse cases involving children under the age of 18 within three months.

On the other hand, Syed Kausar Abbas, the Executive Director SSDO of an Islamabad-based non-governmental organisation working to protect women and children rights in Pakistan, is convinced that human trafficking problem is increasing in Pakistan. According to him, there are many factors, contributing in the increased ratio of this organised crime of national concern.

The children rights activist terms poor coordination mechanism and lack of clarity between the federal, provincial investigating entities over their limits and ambiguities in the respective law further deteriorating the issue of human safety and security in this country.

Talking about child trafficking at national and international levels, Abbas said when a child disappears, parents approach the police but the police instead of investigating the matter, refers the case to FIA, adding that the same is the case with provincial police.

Human trafficking is part of the list that FATF released to Pakistan to take concrete step for their elimination. The state will have to take the children trafficking problem seriously at the ground level.

Human security is the fundamental right of every citizen that needs to be ensured by the state. The increase in the crimes against children shows that there is a need to impose the existing legislation at all levels by ensuring that every institution and citizen has awareness of his/her fundamental right to live in a secure and safe environment in the country, said.

According to Head Sahil Manizeh Bano, “As far as sexual abuse of children is concerned in this country, we can neither draw a bright picture of the situation nor a bleak one. Not only state but people are equally responsible for the growing number of child sexual abuse,” adding that people should start taking responsibility to improve the environment for their children.

“There are child abuse cases everywhere in the world but difference is that they have a strongly established system where every concerned individual and organisation is sensitised against child abuse with a well-established legal structure and victim-friendly speedy justice system but that is not the case in Pakistan,” she added.

The Sahil head said there is a need to establish a strong network of professionals associated with different professions to bring abusers to justice and easy justice to victim children.Powerful and influential abusers [in most cases] are the biggest obstacle that forces the victim child and his/her family settle for a compromise,” said Manizeh.

There is a need to establish child-friendly environments in courts as well as in the police departments so that this social ill can be eradicated from the society. She emphasises free legal aid for the victims to encourage families to react against the abuser and to improve the environment for children,” the child rights activist stressed.

*Name has been changed to protect survivor’s identity