TWELVE-YEAR-OLD HUMA KAZMI ESCAPED DEATH in the initial destruction from the October 2005 earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan and India. She was pulled from the rubble of her school after three days without food or water. Her miraculous survival should have been a happy ending to a harrowing story. Instead, as she lay recovering in her hospital bed, Huma was subject to a threat equally capable of destroying her life.

“She said she was my aunt,” Huma recalled. “She said: ‘You are all alone here. Come to my house and I’ll take care of you. There’s another hospital nearby.'”

An unknown woman, posing as her aunt, sought to take Huma home from the hospital.1 Thousands of orphaned earthquake survivors like Huma join millions of vulnerable women and children who are at risk of falling prey to human traffickers. Once they fall into the hands of the traffickers, they will be used as domestic servants, beggars, child soldiers, camel jockeys, or – as is most common – sex slaves.

The sale of women and children into the sex trade is a complex, international human rights issue that affects the Muslim world as much as any other global community. Although Islam is vehemently opposed to the exploitation of women and children, the sex trade flourishes in Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.2 Muslim women and children are also trafficked in India and Pakistan, primarily through “sham” Islamic marriages. Islamic scholars, Muslim politicians and the global Muslim community are quick to condemn atrocities committed against Muslims when Western forces are responsible. However, many are largely silent when similar or worse atrocities are committed from within. Unfortunately, women and children sold into the sex trade are invisible to the Muslim leadership that should be at the forefront of their emancipation.

The Mechanics of Trafficking

Someone abroad had a marriage proposal for me. The nikkah was done on the phone. I said kubool (accept) on the phone. The next day I was sent off to Mumbai. After three days, I was sent to wrong places … I told them I will not do what they say . . . they started beating and torturing me.

– An Indian girl, rescued by Rajwala, speaking of how she was sold into the sex-trafficking trade 3

Human trafficking is the recruitment or transportation of persons for work by using threats of violence, deception or debt bondage. Human trafficking is one of the world’s fastestgrowing criminal activities. There is much debate over the exact numbers of those trafficked, but the United Nations estimates that more than 4 million people disappear because of trafficking every year and roughly 70 percent are trafficked into the sex trade.4

The mechanisms by which children are trafficked are numerous. While many are abducted, others are sold to traffickers by close relatives or family friends, and still others are lured from their villages with false job offers or marriage pro-posals. Most trafficking victims are from slums and villages beset by poverty and illiteracy, where families are easy targets for the well-organized abduction schemes of traffickers. At the age of 13, Jothi, from Nepal, was sold by her aunt and uncle to traffickers for a couple thousand rupees. 5 Shabana, a village girl rescued from trafficking, was 15 when she was promised a job in a beauty shop in New Delhi, but instead was taken to a brothel.

A web of local contacts, direct sales, deceit, debt bondage, falsification of documents and bribes are all involved in this process. While at a train station, Haseena, a young, divorced girl, was abducted along with her i-year-old son, Ali. They were both sold – she to a brothel owner and Ali to a childless elderly couple. Although she was rescued several years after the abduction, the elderly couple refused to release Ali, and Haseena never contacted her family for fear that she may bring shame upon them.

A common scheme in many countries, particularly in the Muslim world, involves “sham” marriages. Many of these cases were documented by Prajwala, an anti-trafficking NGO in India. Destitute and easily enticed by the promise of a better future, Muslims from the lower socio-economic class in Mumbai marry their daughters to affluent middle-aged Arab men. An agent, or qazi, prepares a nikkahnama (marriage certificate) and talaqnama (divorce certificate) simultaneously, thus allowing the man to spend a few nights with the girl and then divorce her. The fee ranges from 10,000 rupees to 100,000 rupees, depending on the girl’s beauty. The girl’s parents receive half the amount while the other half is taken by the agent.

Another ploy prevalent in Hyderabad, India, involves “outside” marriages, in which underprivileged parents naively marry their daughters over the phone, hand them the nikkahnama, and send them to start a new life “abroad.” Many of these girls end up in the red-light areas of Mumbai and Pune, and their parents never hear from them again. 5 This scheme also takes place in Muslim slums on the outskirts of New Delhi, which are mostly inhabited by poor, illiterate immigrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. Procurers, known as dalaals, without disclosing the background of the bridegroom, induce parents to marry their daughters off. The girls are then trafficked to Pakistan or Arab countries. According to Dr. Abdul Qadir, a physician who works in the slums, “Dalaals operating in the Sanjay Amar Colony (an area of the Delhi slums) with cross-border connections have sold approximately 100,000 girls between the ages of 8 to 15 years in Pakistan since 1971.”6

After natural disasters, children become extremely vulnerable to abductions. This pattern repeated itself in the aftermath of the tsunami in Southeast Asia and Pakistan’s earthquake. Aisha, 6, from Pakistan, lost both her parents in the earthquake and was subsequently sold by her relatives to a prostitute who planned to exploit Aisha in the sex trade.’ Women and children also become victims of trafficking after civil conflict and rapid economic changes. The chronic state of civil war in Burma made Burmese girls especially vulnerable to traffickers from Thailand, while sudden transitions to market economics in the countries of the former Soviet Union led to a huge increase in the number of women traf-ficked to Western Europe.
Living in Agony

When I look back, nightmares keep coming back. I shudder to visit my memories. I was just 10 and my aunt sold me to a redlight area in Mumbai. The torture, the pain, all those beatings . . . can I ever forget them? Most of the time I had no idea what was happening. They made me drink and then the men came and came and came. How many years was I there? I don’t know maybe five or six? . . . My body was weak, I was sick, and I wondered, “When will all this end?”

– an Indian girl speaking of her experiences in the brothels °

Sex trafficking is one of the most widespread forms of torture today. The traffickers use a variety of methods to break down their victims: starvation, confinement, beatings, rape, forced substance abuse, isolation, threats against the victims’ families and shaming the victims by revealing their activities to their communities. Aneela, rescued after three years in the brothels, was gang-raped and burned with cigarettes when she refused to have sex with customers. Deepa, who was abducted from her village, did not see sunlight the entire year she was locked in the brothel.

In Indian brothels, trafficked girls can have as many as 10 clients on a weekday and more than 20 clients on each weekend day. This form of coerced indentured servitude forces girls to reimburse their own purchase price to brothel owners and to carry a continuous debt.

The physical and emotional pain that victims of trafficking endure is unfathomable. Once they are trapped in the complex trafficking network, there is practically no way out. Most of these girls had simple dreams – to study, marry and raise families. After being trafficked, they recall their agonizing life in the brothels with fervent anger and uncontrollable tears. Trafficking not only robs them of their families and friends, but also their social identities,9 any hope of realizing their potential, and – most tragic of all – their desire to live.

Stop Trafficking and Oppression of Children and Women (STOP), a prominent anti-trafficking NGO in New Delhi, estimates that the HIV infection rates range from 60 percent to 80 percent in many of the red light districts of India. Not only are these girls vulnerable to HIV/ AIDS, but it is HIV/ AIDS that also contributes to trafficking. Men seek young females or virgins to avoid becoming infected themselves, and those who are already infected mistakenly believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS. Other sexually transmitted diseases, assault injuries, pain from abortion procedures, and drug and alcohol addictions are all common physical consequences. Negative mental health outcomes include depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and psychological burdens of rape, slavery and exploitation.10 According to USAID, the global trafficking enterprise generates $7 billion per year – it is the third largest illicit trade after narcotics and weapons. Those who benefit from this systematic slave trade include recruiters who scout the girls, traffickers who deceive them, pimps who sell them, customers who provide the demand and police officials who are bribed into ignoring the problem.

Saving Stolen Lives

The brothel keepers wake up every single day committed to their work. They wake up focused on what they are doing and they are there all day, every day, 24/7 . Somebody has to have the same sort of commitment to fighting the problem.

– Gary I laugen, President of International Justice Mission 11

Despite efforts to curb sex trafficking networks, many continue to operate in full force. The networks are widespread, highly organized, difficult to identify and involve numerous intermediaries. Trafficking routes change frequently, often following migration patterns that are particularly active during periods of economic hardship, social conflict and natural disasters. Law enforcement and government officials repeatedly fail to ensure country-to-country border control and sometimes participate in the transactions themselves. Many girls rescued from Indian brothels recount stories of how policemen storm the brothels for rescues, but leave with bribe money secured from the brothel owners. Other girls tell of police officers who frequented the establishments as clients themselves.

Because sex trafficking is extremely complex and multifaceted, approaches to combating it must take into account factors fueling the trade (supply and demand), factions involved in the trade (traffickers, customers, victims, societal support structures), and stages of application (prevention, rescue and rehabilitation/reintegration). A successful approach would tackle the supply and demand factors while addressing the four major factions in the industry at each stage of application.

An example of a leading on-the-ground NGO involved in the anti-trafficking movement is New Delhi’s STOP. It uses a human rights-based framework to combating trafficking and contributing to the political, social and economic empowerment of children and women. STOP’s direct actions encompass the three Rs – recovery, repatriation and reintegration. In order to combat trafficking, STOP has mobilized a strong and cohesive network of partners, ranging from law enforcement officials, the government, the judiciary, sex workers’ organizations, human rights groups, HIV/AIDS care homes, media, international NGOs and civil society.

Disgraced and Abandoned

They told me my life is saved . . . what saved? I have nothing to be saved – worn out, spoiled, where do I go? Will my family take me back?

– the words of a trafficked girl in Hyderabad after she had been rescued (from Prajwala’s “Me & Us” documentary)

The destructive effect of trafficking becomes even more apparent when an enslaved woman or child is rescued. Deceived or forced into sexual slavery with the lure of jobs, marriage, and a better life, trafficked girls are emotionally, psychologically and physically shattered when rescued. Their self-esteem and sense of worth are destroyed. Critical to the healing process is restoration of dignity and a reassurance to the victims that they are individuals, with a unique identity and potential to proceed with their lives. Without effective rehabilitation in place, many rescued victims have no place to go and are forced to return to the dreadful world into which they were trafficked.

Those girls with supportive families are reunited with them. The unfortunate reality, however, is that, after being rescued, it is rare for girls to be welcomed back to their families and communities. Although coerced into trafficking, society treats them as if they entered the trade voluntarily. Girls who are HIV positive carry the brunt of this social stigma. Asma, a girl rescued by STOP, was thrilled about eventually returning to her family in Bangladesh. However, after her family members found out she was HIV positive, they refused to take her back. She was devastated and humiliated. Anisha, another trafficked survivor, feared going back to her community in the New Delhi slums because she felt that she might be forced back into the world of trafficking. Rather than rendering them as “outcasts,” STOP and other NGOs provide girls like Asma and Anisha with a home and the opportunity to acquire educational and occupational skills in order to develop a sustainable livelihood.

Looking at the Big Picture

Like all social ills, sex trafficking is a problem rooted in social and economic injustice. ? rafficking is part of the larger problem of poverty and the exploitation of people’s vulnerabilities. While at a micro level, the trade is driven by the abhorrent behavior of men, at a macro level, the sex trade is directly linked to exploitation through globalization, poverty and gender inequity. In some societies, women and children are considered “property,” or treated as second-class citizens, further exposing them to an already increased risk of enslavement into trafficking networks. Most importantly, it is the culture of silence that allows the perpetuation of the abuse.

STOP, Prajwala and partnering NGOs have found that a successful way to decrease supply within the sex trafficking trade is to couple global efforts against poverty with long-term changes in social perceptions of women. NGOs cannot do this alone – governments, donors, religious organizations and community groups must work with NGOs in order to address this devastating global problem.

Silence in the Muslim World

Sexual matters … are as much shrouded in secrecy as they are a forbidden subject of discussion. In the cases of violence and sexual exploitation … it is not surprising that children should be the prime victims twice over: first of all, victims of the assault itself, and secondly, victims of the repression and silence about the subject.

– from Lebanon’s second periodic report to the Ccommittee of the convention on the rights of the child 12

Islamic law, or Shari’a, like international human rights laws, regards any kind of sexual exploitation as among the gravest of transgressions. It is the responsibility of Muslims all over the world to implement the Qur’anic traditions of self-help, solidarity and protection of the vulnerable through measures such as legislative and social responses to sex trafficking. The method of Shari’a implementation needs to be re-examined so that unfair practices, such as sham marriages, do not take place under the guise of Islam.

Although some international and regional anti-trafficking conferences have taken place in Muslim countries, local Muslim communities, including the ones in the Delhi slums, remain lethargic. Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala, believes that religious groups can play a tremendous role in raising community consciousness. Imams and other religious leaders can use their ability to shape social values, attitudes and norms to address the misogyny and exploitation of children that underlie sex trafficking and related problems. Local Muslim communities can develop measures to stop and punish the traffickers, the qazis solemnizing the sham marriages and the customers involved in the trade.

Whether it is because of ignorance or embarrassment, Muslims generally refuse to acknowledge the existence of sex trafficking in the Muslim world. Trafficking may be one of the biggest threats to the safety of Muslim women in the Muslim world, yet it receives scant attention from the Muslim leadership. Instead of focusing on the protection of Muslim women, Islamic discourse on women in the Muslim world is largely relegated to issues of gender segregation, dress codes and marriage regulations.

The Muslim world is known for its fervent reactions to injustices levied against it – the Danish cartoon incident being one recent example. However, Muslim communities arc less impassioned when the injustices in question are levied by Muslims against Muslims. The lack of political or social will to respond to, or even acknowledge, the daily rape and exploitation of tens of thousands of Muslim women and girls is a catastrophic failure of the global Muslim community.

The Future

For every girl rescued, there are thousands who continue to suffer in the brothels. In December 2004, the Second ArabAfrican Forum Against the Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children took place in Rabat, Morocco, while earlier in the year, Indonesia hosted the first Regional Conference on Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. As a result, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Yemen, Oman, Syria, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Nigeria have either made national assessments or developed national plans to fight human trafficking.

To facilitate a local Muslim response to sex trafficking, USAID recently granted funds to a local NGO in Bangladesh, which began the Community Mobilization Program Involving Imams in Anti-Trafficking (COMPIAT). About 2,400 imams are being trained to help spread the word about trafficking in their communities and conduct community level workshops. 13

HUMA KAZMI felt uneasy about the woman who was posing as her aunt and notified authorities at the hospital. The woman fled and Huma was safe. Unfortunately for many in the aftermath of the tsunami and quake, the story does not have a similar ending. STOP and other NGOs, governments and religious groups place sex trafficking within the broader context of development, poverty reduction and gender equality and are compelled to address the root causes of stigma and other forms of accepted oppression. A multi-faceted approach can be used not only to combat sex trafficking, but also to restore children’s and women’s rights. The potential to create systemic change for the role of women in developing countries is considerable. These anti-trafficking approaches can be used to strengthen women’s economic security and rights, build women’s leadership roles, promote children’s rights and help eliminate violence against children and women.

As the girls at the STOP house sing . . .

I have wings,

I can fly,

Unshackle my chains and

Watch me soar .. .
STOP’S Rescue & Recovery Work

* Monitor trafficking networks through its own underground network

* Issue daily calls for rescues, known as brothel raids

* Many raids are led by rescued trafficked girls and sex workers because of their knowledge of brothel locations and inner happenings.

* Has contributed to:

– Convictions of at least 70 traffickers

– Arrest of hundreds of perpetrators

– Rescue of more than 500 trafficked women and children

STOP’S “Ashray”- A Place to Call Home

* Houses not only rescued girls, but also vulnerable children from various exploitative and high-risk situation

* Some 40 girls, between 6 and 24 years old, live in the home.

* More than three-fourths of children in the home are from the Muslim slums outside of New Delhi.

* The adolescent girls are the caregivers and share responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and taking care of the younger children.

* At the house they learn vocational skills (candle making, pot painting, embroidery) and training in dance, drama, music, driving and sewing in addition to formal school education.

* Many receive public speaking training and attend anti-trafficking conferences with Roma Debabrata, founder of STOP.

STOP’S Preventive Work in the Slums A Key Part of the Fight Against Trafficking

* Health clinics providing health services and education about HIV/AIDS and safe sex practices to thousands in the slums

* Educational centers providing hundreds of children an education that stresses self-expression, physical fitness, gender equality and self-confidence

* Daily self-help group discussions combined with micro credit programs for women

* Community centers providing information about gender-healthy concepts, humans rights issues and safe migration

* Beauty classes, embroidery training and lessons on how to create and manage beauty parlors and fabric shops for vulnerable girls

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on