Asia-Pacific

Trafficking in Women Threatens Peace

In an interview with AFP last year, this seventeen-year-old Vietnamese woman said she considered herself lucky because just months after being unwittingly smuggled into China and incarcerated in a brothel, she was rescued. (Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP-Getty Images)

In Asian societies, the issue of trafficking in women was addressed about a century ago. Although The International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade, signed in Paris on May 18, 1904, was the foremost international document to deal with the issue of trafficking in women, later, one by one, other remarkable efforts were also adopted. These efforts are commendable but, unfortunately, each and every regional and international initiation cannot be dealt with properly because of a lack of space and time.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (S.A.A.R.C.) addressed the issue of trafficking for the first time in its Ninth Summit held in Maldives, May 12-14, 1997. South Asian leaders agreed to mention the issue in its declaration: "Expressing grave concern at the trafficking of women and children within and between countries, the Heads of State or Government pledged to coordinate their efforts and take effective measures to address this problem. They decided that existing legislation in Member States should be strengthened and strictly enforced. This should include simplification of repatriation procedures for victims of trafficking. They also decided that the feasibility of establishing a Regional Convention on combating the Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution be examined by the relevant Technical Committee."

According to a report in Asmita magazine: "The movement to suppress trafficking in Women began in England in 1869 as a campaign against state regulation of prostitution. Proponents of the campaign formed the Internationalist Abolitionist Federation in 1875 and, as a result of their actions, the Contagious Diseases Act which state regulated prostitution was repealed. Out of this movement came the British Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made it a criminal act to procure a girl under twenty-one years of age for immoral acts in England or abroad. This act served as a model for later international discussions.

"The movement expanded to many other countries, culminating in an international conference which met in Paris in 1902. Out of this conference came the International Agreement for the Suppression of white Slave Traffic which was signed by twelve countries in 1904."

In 1933, a new international agreement was signed in Geneva, removing the condition of constraint, but only with regard to the international "traffic in women." The Convention of 1910 was signed by 13 countries. This recognized women under the age of twenty as minors and the trafficking of such minors, even with their consent, was also punishable.

The Convention for the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of Others (1949) is the most specific, relevant and still effective convention to deal with the issue of trafficking in women.

The Declaration and Program of Action of World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna on June 25, 1993, recognized the human rights of women and of the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.

In the early 1980's, "trafficking in women" resurfaced on the agenda of the United Nations. In 1991, the prevention of "traffic in persons and the exploitation of the prostitution of other's" is the main topic at the 16th session of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. This resulted in a Draft Program of Action for the Prevention of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. In its 48th session (1992), the Commission on Human Rights endorsed the need to launch a concerted program of action and decided to transmit the Draft Program to Governments and other concerned organizations for their comments. Meanwhile, in 1994, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the "traffic in women and girls":

"The illicit and clandestine movement of persons across national and international borders, largely from developing countries and some countries with economics in transition, with the end goal of forcing women and girl children into sexually or economically oppressive and exploitative situations for the profit of recruiters, traffickers and crime syndicates, as well as other illegal activities related to trafficking, such as forced domestic labor, false marriages, clandestine employment and false adoption."

In 1996, the Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution calling on governments to implement the Platform for Action of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women by "considering the ratification and enforcement of international conventions on trafficking in persons and on slavery."

The World Summit for Social Development was held in Copenhagen March 6-12, 1995. Its Program of Action also somewhat dealt with the issue of trafficking of women and children but it was not focused solely on prostitution. The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in September 1995. It was the largest world conference convened by the United Nations so far.

As at other world conferences, this conference also adopted the declaration and platform for action. But with one difference in that the documents adopted were the synthesized and precise form of all existing U.N. concepts and attitudes that dealt with the progress of women through various ways.

The World Conference, held in Stockholm August 27-31, 1996, adopted many agenda for action against commercial sexual exploitation of children. For the Protection of children from trafficking the agenda was set: "In the case of trafficking of children, develop and implement national laws, policies and programs to protect children from being trafficked within or across borders and penalize the traffickers; in cross border situations, treat these children humanely under national immigration laws, and establish readmission agreements to ensure their safe return to their countries of origin accompanied by supportive services; and share relevant data."

Asmita says, "A fundamental problem in responding to the issue of trafficking in women is the lack of a precise and coherent definition. The debate is above all characterized by an immense amount of confusion about what is exactly meant by the term "trafficking in women." Old and new definitions show inconsistencies, contradictions, conflicting interests, failure to pinpoint violence and abuse, and a tendency to deny female self-determination. These trends are reflected in the various definitions and concepts used in international and national legislation."

So how long will we allow the current situation to continue?

The Trafficking of Young Girls

Trafficking in women is an abhorrent and increasingly worrying phenomenon. The problems associated with trafficking in women have steadily worsened over the past three decades. The flesh trade has produced both a health epidemic and a weakening of political and legal institutions that is an additional obstacle to vital economic and political development.

Societal problems affecting women and making them vulnerable were a result of inequalities. It was clear that poorer people, particularly women and children living in less developed areas, were socially and economically the most vulnerable. The trafficking of girls was also the direct consequence of economic crisis, and the low status afforded to women in the region.

South Asia in particular is a unique geographical area with many points of view. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation comprises Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives, while Burma and Afghanistan are sometimes included.

Because of the geographical proximity and relatively open borders of these countries, trafficking in women is more pronounced in South Asia. India stands out as being on the receiving end of the trade. An estimated 150,000 women and children from South Asia and 225,000 from Southeast Asia are subjected to trafficking yearly.

Because women have limited access to occupations and resources, they are the ones hardest hit during economic crisis. Poverty is definitely linked to prostitution but poverty is not the only reason; it exacerbates an already desperate situation caused by war.

Although open borders, conflict and poverty are the main reasons for the trafficking of women in Asian countries, the lower socio-economic development in the region have trafficking and prostitution more severe.

The conventional model of trafficking being related to some specific ethnic community with economic reasons at the top now has been transformed into new approaches with a blended effect of many background variables, namely social, economic, political and administrative ones.

Efforts to combat trafficking will have to be a major part of efforts to stabilize a country and the wider Asian region. Only, limited attempts have been made to combat the problem over the past decade.

A lack of commitment and implementation of policy are obstacles to solving the crisis. Given the gloomy scenario, governments have not been able to come up with concrete and effective programs to curb this malady in the region.

Indeed, governments need to act actively to abolish the practices of the flesh trade. By educating and providing opportunities for women, governments would be doing a service not to the women alone but in checking the spread of disease like AIDS that might one day engulf the whole generation.

Social and economic problems have contributed to the upward trend in the trafficking of girls. Lack of education, awareness and opportunity has contributed to the rise of the flash trade, especially in Asia. There has also been little coordination of anti-trafficking efforts.

Poverty is leading many women into street prostitution. A nation at war is generally speaking a nation unable or unwilling to meet basic human needs. War-affected women are more likely to be sexually abused.

There have been no studies linking displacement and trafficking in women. Clearly, reliable studies and data on sexual exploitation and trafficking in women and the link to displacement are urgently needed.

The direct impacts of the war on women are wide ranging. Left without a home, and without income, Asian women end up begging or prostituting themselves in order to provide food.

Poverty was the main obstacle to the full realization of women's equality. It manifested itself in poor health, low levels of education, food insecurity and unemployment. Further, women constituted the majority of the population living in rural areas, and they suffered the consequences of unsophisticated farming practices and inadequate power infrastructure.

One of the most tragic consequences of the long civil war in Nepal has been the kidnapping of women and children. Displacement is the most common consequence of armed conflict and women the most affected member of the civilian population.

Many displaced women and their families are still without adequate shelter, and are among the most vulnerable. In addition, it is important to note that most women suffer the impacts of war in multiple ways.

In flight, as well as upon arrival in urban places, women commonly experience violence and abuse. Conflict has contributed to a rise in prostitution and trafficking, which threatens women's health.

Prostitution is officially illegal and H.I.V. infection is high among prostitutes. For these reasons, alternative income generation strategies are needed. A reintegration strategy should include greater training, credit and enterprise opportunities. There is an urgent need for better protection programs and human rights monitoring.

H.I.V. Epidemics

Asia has witnessed a sharp increase in H.I.V. infections in recent years. The incidence of H.I.V./AIDS has reached pandemic proportions in the region. The disease has crippled the socioeconomic life of these countries. There is an urgent need to reduce the sexual transmission of H.I.V./AIDS in Asia before it is too late.

The U.N.'s Human Resource Development Index indicates that there is tremendous pressure on the social, economic, educational and human resource development of a nation when H.I.V./AIDS prevalence rates are very high.

Data shows the rates to be increasing very fast. Given the number of women affected by H.I.V., the potential for vertical transmission to newborn children is significant.

In spite of such sad factors, poor access to health delivery services, a lack of sex education in school curriculum, the treatment of sexuality issues as social taboos, and poor knowledge about condoms are also contributing to the increase in H.I.V. infection in this region.

Programs that offer voluntary H.I.V. counseling and testing to pregnant women and appropriate therapy to those infected are needed to prevent vertical transmission to newborns.

Efforts aimed at prevention and treatment are seriously impeded by the social stigma, shame and isolation that H.I.V./AIDS patients frequently endure, in addition to the lack of adequate nutrition and health care.

The challenges that confront Asia are enormous and immeasurable. The disease is killing tens of thousands of young women.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Kamala Sarup.

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