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South Asia: Prostitution, human trafficking thrive

Publish Date: 09 Feb 2005

Source: The Japan Times Online
By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Prostitution, human trafficking thrive as a lucrative immorality

ISLAMABAD -- The countries making up the South Asia region support about one-quarter of the planet's population, with a large number of people unemployed and living below the poverty line. This socioeconomic situation has helped increase social crimes especially like human trafficking, especially of women and children. Prostitution, which is also included in human trafficking, is an intolerant social crime and a major issue in these countries.

The ratio of human trafficking is high in this region, with girls kidnapped from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and trafficked to mostly Gulf States, where there is a bevy of rich clientele.

Some studies estimate that more than 6,000 girls are being sold to India each year, which adds to the huge number of 172,0000 girls, mostly from Nepal, working as prostitutes in India. India has around 2.3 million prostitutes working in the region. Most of the girls are driven to this "profession" due to poverty, marriage or adoption.

In some regions, prostitution isn't frowned upon. In fact, it is a prestigious religious duty and women involved in this are revered by society. These women are called devdasi, where "dev" means "god," and "dasi" means "maid," therefore "maid of god." Actually these devdasis were "temple prostitutes." This ancient tradition was based on chosen females dedicating their whole lives to a deity and living their lives in temples.

Choosing the devdasi was the duty of the temple priests and the social elite, and these women was chosen to look after the deities. The devdasi also catered to the sexual needs of the priests and rich patrons of the temple (the latter usually chosen by her mother and the temple) who took responsibility for her social welfare. These women were free to have or refuse sex at their will. However, they were not allowed to the common man. Being so important in the temple hierarchy, they were invited as revered guests to social functions in surrounding villages to dance and sing. These women were considered holy and were not allowed to mix with the common folk.

This tradition saw its downfall when a century ago, the devdasi were considered immoral and were no longer held in reverence by society. They were reduced to mere prostitutes, social outcasts. However, it is still practiced in Saundatti, a small village located in the south of India.

Then in the 1980s, the Indian government totally banned the tradition and tried to rehabilitate the devdasi and give them a better life. The ban did not deter those for whom this tradition is a revered custom, and those who held it dear, especially in South India, continued the practice. Today hundreds of girls are covertly dedicated to temples to don the role of devdasi in defiance of the ban.

"It is a revered tradition that has been part of the culture for centuries. If it is part of one's culture and religion, how can we forgo this tradition just because some people think it is not right and immoral? How can serving a temple and dedication to a deity and other duties be immoral when it is in the name of a revered cause?" asks sociologist Shurti Shunkar.

Says historian Guldeep Mehra: "We cannot uproot an ancient tradition just like that. There is a lot of history behind such customs. If we want them to change, we could be hurting someone's feelings. As a historian I would not support it."

Prostitution has become a taboo in the conservative mindset of South Asia, but it remains part of every society and culture. It also serves to constrict certain carnal crimes from growing, even though in most conservative societies crimes against women and children are on the rise.

And although conservatives may decry such degradation, the most hypocritical condone the killing of their own women under various other customs and laws, like horrendous honor killings of innocent females at the hands of their male kin, or the selling off (usually after a small ceremony disguised as a wedding to appease the conscience of parents or guardians) of young girls to older men for money.

Sameena, a resident of Hyderabad Deccan, India, hails from a high-caste, poor Muslim family -- a Syed family, direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammad who hold a revered position in Islamic society. Her father is a low-earning rickshaw driver. Her mother is a housewife, tending to her brood of six daughters and five sons all living in a hovel.

Sameena was "married off" at the age of 16 to a wealthy man from an Arab country. Only too happy to get Sameena off their hands, her parents didn't even consider that their new "son-in-law" was double their daughter's age. They were happy that they were getting a daughter married and that this marriage didn't cost them a penny. On the contrary, the groom, who already had several wives, paid them handsomely for their daughter.

The groom and the new addition to his household flew off to Dehli, where they spent a couple of days together before he left her in the hotel with divorce papers.

Sameena was handsomely rewarded by her husband with jewelry and cash, which her parents laid claim to. The teenager was devastated. She actually believed that she had at last found happiness, if not marital then at least financial. She thought she had been saved from the daily pangs of starvation her family faced and that she would be able to help her brothers and sisters.

Upon coming home, she realized her parents had known all along that her groom would run out on her. And now they were preparing for her younger sister's "wedding," also to a wealthy man from abroad. Sameena's parents silenced her protests and she found nobody else willing to help.

The poor selling off their daughters to rich men puts food on the table. Sameena was "married" twice more before her younger sisters took her place. Those around her seemed to accept these marriages as legal in every way.

This is a softer side of prostitution that is accepted and used as a means of living by the poor. It has become acceptable as a means to an end only due to economic impediments, and therefore is not considered a social taboo. Pakistan, as a predominately Islamic country, frowns on this trade, but cannot stop it.

The metropolis of Karachi is notorious for receiving a million Bangladeshi and more than 200,000 Burmese women, according to Indrani Sinha of SANLAAP India. Sanlaap is a nongovernmental organization engaged in improving the life of women, children and adolescents in the red-light areas.

These women are sold in Pakistan for about $1,500 - $2,500 with a 15 percent to 20 percent commission for the police, depending on their "looks, age, docility and virginity."

The larger part of the clientele for these "goods" is rich visiting Arabs, the rich locals and rural farmers. The Arabs take "temporary wives," abandoning them and any children afterwards, with or without any benefits, a practice prevalent in India as well.

In Pakistan, the trafficked women are victimized by the authorities and are booked under the Zina Ordinance, part and parcel of the dangerous and controversial Hudood Ordinances, which state that adultery or sex outside marriage is a crime against the state and punishable by death by stoning.

Usually these women and girls are often charged under Zina (adultery), if they are caught as prostitutes and maybe imprisoned. Doubly punishing them for crimes they were forced to commit.

During the 1980s, President Zia-ul-Haq dispersed prostitutes from their specified localities in red light areas and forced them to seek refugee in residential areas.

This gave their profession finesse by providing them strategic places to hunt for respectable rich clients. And this allowed them to camouflage and mingle freely with the public. This shift only allowed their profession to prosper, avoid police raids and commissions and carry on their businesses in private within their premises.

Another major factor adding to prostitution in Pakistan is the slum dwellers. These people live in illegal premises in shanty huts and are continually harassed and abused by the police.

Every night, policemen come along and pick out girls for prostitution. Protests are met with dire consequences, which could range from dislocation from the illegal premises, to death, or even the rape of the victim's mother or younger sisters. The hapless concede to these demands, aware that despite the authorities' knowledge of this problem, nothing will be done to change their plight.

Sajida grew up in a slum area of Karachi. Her father is a laborer and her mother works as a maid. She herself is prostituted by policemen, who either take her for themselves or sell her off to clients. There is no monetary remuneration for her services -- the cops pimping her out take it all.

Instead, Sajida earns only a slim sense of security for the other girls in her family and having a place to live. She sees no future for herself, and says she can't even commit suicide -- her death would give way for these animals to victimize the ones she has been trying to protect. "No one can help us! Only death will deliver us!" she says.

Bangladesh is one of the major providers of females for trafficking due to extreme poverty and social tolerance. It is one of the countries where many females are sold due to lack of dowry. Parents prefer to sell their daughters and sisters for money, instead of harrowing under the economic grunge.

Two judges of the Bangladeshi High Court have ruled that prostitution as a livelihood is not illegal, in a case where two girls were evicted from their home when the landlord discovered they were running a brothel.

Although frowned upon in this Islamic country, prostitution is thus allowed if the trade workers have a license. However, such a license can only be issued if the authorities are convinced that the holders have no other means of income.

Legal experts hold that this is an unusual judgment, but it nevertheless validates prostitution as a legal form of livelihood.

Interestingly, the Bangladeshi Constitution states that "gambling and prostitution should not be encouraged," but the largest number of trafficked women is generated in Bangladesh, due mainly to the weak economy and lack of employment.

The primary reasons behind such widespread prostitution in most Asian countries seem to stem from widespread poverty. This argument does not hold true in countries with thriving economies, where all too often a blind eye is turned to lucrative immorality.

Lubna Jerar Naqvi holds a LLB degree, is an assistant editor for the op-ed pages of the The News International and writes on social, political and women's issues.

Copyright © 2005 The Japan Times Ltd