Rukhsana Shakeel*, 25, is so small, so timid that it is almost impossible to believe that she is a mother of two. However, once she starts speaking, that constant fear in her eyes starts to make sense. This is a woman who has been tortured for seven long years, whose tale illustrates the sordid details of home grown, internal trafficking.
A journey marked by tears
Currently residing in the Panah shelter home, Rukhsana bears signs of the incessant torture she endured – physical and mental – at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Her children, a son aged five, and a two-year-old daughter, also suffered.
Recalling her ordeal is not easy, even today.
“My parents passed away years ago and I lived with my maternal uncle,” she says in Punjabi infused with Urdu. “My husband was my uncle’s neighbour. The two struck a deal and, just like that, I belonged to him. With no siblings, no support system, I have been at his mercy from day one.”
Immediately after the wedding, Rukhsana found out that her husband’s only business was gambling, while she was forced to serve as a maid in posh localities of the city.
“My husband constantly said the kids were not his,” she says quietly. “I was emotionally tortured, physically beaten, and so were my little ones.”
Finally, six months ago, when the abuse escalated, Rukhsana made her first and final escape from her hometown in Gujranwala*, her two children in tow. In one night, the frail woman called upon Amazonian courage and boarded a train to Karachi. No looking back.
Chaos in our own backyard
While there are countless cases of internal trafficking throughout the country, much like Rukhsana’s, there is sadly a great dearth of consolidated data. Experts believe that while internal trafficking of women is on the rise, the majority of stories remain unreported.
“There are no laws, no rules covering this issue. There is mass confusion between internal trafficking, cross border trafficking, and human trafficking,” says Benyameen, the National Project coordinator for Bonded Labor, Internal Trafficking Project at the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Zia Ahmad Awan, a legal expert and man behind Madadgaar’s helplines, agrees with Benyameen.
“The main reason [for the lack of solid figures] is that this is an underground practice and no serious effort has ever been made to undo it,” he explains. “Secondly, it is a complex issue. Internal trafficking also leads to external trafficking. There is no comprehensive law related to internal trafficking. In fact, internal trafficking laws are so weak that victims are not able to get lawyers and no money is allocated to compensate for their grievances.”
Not taken to task
According to Awan, the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (PACHTO) should include concrete internal trafficking laws so that stringent action against perpetrators can be taken.
In the same vein, an Aurat Foundation report published in December 2012 in collaboration with USAID, titled Internal Trafficking of Women and Girls in Pakistan – A Research Study, explicitly states that many incidents of internal trafficking are not reported, hence culprits are never caught.
According to the report, illegal immigrants are often booked under different crimes instead of under the trafficking clause. Furthermore, there are cultural practices closely linked to internal trafficking because of which it is often not even considered a crime.
The report further highlights that in Punjab, instances of internal trafficking are highest in the southern parts of the province where poverty is rampant, such as Gujranwala, Sialkot, Gujrat, and Mandi-Bahauddin. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the most affected area is Chitral, while the coastal areas of Balochistan are most gravely affected. Sindh does not indicate a distinct pattern.
Rukhsana ardently hopes more efforts will be made soon to curb this menace.
“It was initially very difficult to convince people to take my case seriously. I don’t even have a CNIC, this basic necessity was denied to me by my husband,” she says. “But now, I am glad I took a step. I am safe. I am learning how to sew; my kids are going to school. Day by day, we are rebuilding our lives.”
*Name of the person and place of origin has been changed to protect identity
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2013.