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The Missing Girls of Bangladesh

By Meha Dixit

April 6, 2016

 “It was my uncle who sold me to a trafficker who brought me to India,” Hamida Akhtar from Satkhira, Bangladesh, said when we were sitting in a softly lit room in a government-run shelter home in Liluah in Howrah district of West Bengal. With a deadpan expression, she continued: “The CID [Criminal Investigation Department] caught the trafficker and I was brought to a shelter home.” The 20-year-old is among the 38 Bangladeshi girls I interviewed in three shelter homes in January this year.

Of them, 12, all of them poor, were trafficked from different districts in Bangladesh and brought to West Bengal. Several were lured with the promise of jobs. But once both victim and trafficker crossed the border, gone was the promise of a job and the girl suddenly found herself in a brothel in the new country, or sold to a stranger.

West Bengal also acts as a transit point for human trafficking. Khalida Khatoon, for instance, said she was brought across the porous border from her hometown Barisal, but travelled the breadth of the country to Mumbai, where the trafficker sent her. There, the 16-year-old was rescued by the police and sent back to West Bengal’s Nadia district where she was in a shelter home for two years. From there she moved into another shelter home in Kolkata, run by an NGO called Sanlaap, where she has been patiently awaiting repatriation for five months.

West Bengal is the hub of internal and cross-border human trafficking in India. It shares approximately 2,220 km of land border and 259 km of riverine border with Bangladesh, most of which is unfenced, making cross-border trafficking in persons, drugs, and fake currency seamless. The districts in the State which are most vulnerable to cross-border human trafficking include North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Nadia, Malda, and Cooch Behar. The State serves as a source, transit point (girls are sent to Hyderabad and Bengaluru, according to a local activist), and destination for trafficking in persons.

Defining Trafficking

The 2003 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, to which India is a signatory, defines trafficking in persons. It includes sex trafficking and forced labour. Although Article 23 of the Indian Constitution prohibits human trafficking, it does not define the term. The country’s first definition of human trafficking based on the UN trafficking protocol was first seen in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which substituted Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code with 370 and 370A which deals with trafficking of persons for exploitation. However, this does not include forced labour. Nor does the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 (as amended in 1986). Other laws pertaining to forced labour in the country do not adequately address the complex issue of human trafficking for the purpose of labour.

The critical issue concerning the cross-national victim is that while the perpetrator or trafficker (Indian or foreign national) may receive modest punishment, trafficked persons are victimised twice. Once the cross-national victim and the trafficker are arrested in India, they are both charged under the Foreigners Act of 1946. According to the Act, if an offender is a foreigner, he/she should be punished under this Act and deported. As a result, the trafficked person is treated as a criminal for his/her unlawful presence in India. While the perpetrator, if a foreigner, is deported to his/her home country following the completion of the sentence, the victim is transferred to a shelter home in India and is required, as per court orders, to remain there till the court hearing, since he/she is the witness in the case.

Further, Indian laws do not target traffickers and their associates or penalise them adequately. The trafficker can be charged under Section 366B of the IPC which states that importation of a female below the age of 21 years is a punishable offence. However, this provision is rarely implemented, as police officers are mostly unaware of its existence. Moreover, the penal clauses are not used adequately to bring the clients to justice.

Another critical issue relating to the cross-national victim, as noted by a senior official at a shelter home in Kolkata, is that the verification of the addresses of individuals lodged in shelter homes in West Bengal may take as long as two or three years. The reasons for this include delay in confirmation by the Bangladesh government, or incorrect, incomplete, or vague addresses given by the trafficked persons at the shelter home.

There are a number of NGOs in West Bengal working on internal human trafficking, but few deal with cross-border trafficking. There is also a lack of adequate human resources to deal with this issue. Some local activists have suggested that to effectively address it, transit homes run by NGOs in collaboration with the Border Security Force (BSF) along the Indo-Bangladesh border can be set up.

Once the trafficker and the victim are apprehended by the BSF along the border, the victim can be sent to a transit home rather than to a police station till her antecedents are verified by the Bangladesh government. Further, according to NGOs in the State, the BSF should develop a good rapport with child care and protection agencies. There is a need for community mobilisation, sensitisation of the BSF on the issue of cross-border trafficking, and good networking between community-based organisations and BSF border outposts. Finally, there should be better coordination between the governments and NGOs on either side of the border.

Meha Dixit has taught at Kashmir University, and worked with Amnesty International.