Child sexual exploitation: Breaking taboo
By Elita Karim
Jessore, Dhaka, 24 November 2008. An hour’s drive from Jessore in south-east Bangladesh lies Shatkhira, home to 19-year-old Anwara. Anwara lives in a small hut with her parents, five sisters and one brother. The village is filled with similar huts – made of clay, with thatched roofs, a small veranda and one single room.
Anwara was only 17 years old when she was tricked into accompanying her cousin's husband to Kolkata. He had promised her a job. "My younger sister and I had gone to visit them and while we were there, my cousin's husband kept telling me about how he could get me work. I would be able to earn a living for myself and also send a portion of it home.” Anwara was scared – perhaps she sensed his real intention – but she had seen her family suffer so much. “Sometimes we go days without anything to eat”, she says. “My mother works day and night and sometimes gets ill. We never have money to pay for medicine.”
"He returned after a few days and forced me to go with him," says Anwara. Anwara's mother saw him taking her daughter on a motorbike. "I screamed for them to stop but they did not," says the tearful mother. "After that, I would go to his place and ask my niece where Anwara was. Both my niece and her husband said she was safe. They said she was earning a lot of money and very soon would be sending home money as well. But I knew something was wrong."
"I remember being very exhausted after spending days and nights on the road," Anwara said. "I was in a car, then on a train and finally I was taken to a place where I was fed. I had to spend a few days with a man who lived with his wife and children. The wife would sometimes beat me and not give me food because I would not stop crying and would always want to go home. Then I was transferred to another place. At one point, I realised that I was in Mumbai." Anwara is scared and ashamed to admit that she was forced to work in a brothel.
Rekha (19) suffered a similar ordeal. When she was just 17 years old, Rehka was tricked by a female drug peddler into going to Kolkata. “I remember crying for my mother,” she said. “The place where I was taken was cramped with so many girls from different countries. The people there would beat me if I would cry and sometimes not give me food.” Rekha said she met many girls from Bangladesh who were either drugged and kidnapped or tricked into entering the brothel.
“I was adamant for a while and would not do what they asked me to do,” she said. With shame in her voice and tears in her eyes, Rekha admits that she was made to wear very short dresses and strapless blouses. She was also regularly beaten by the women inside the brothel. “They used to make me do dirty things,” she said. Rekha said that in the beginning she would refuse to wear such clothes, go to regular ‘grooming sessions’ and let men touch her. “For more than three days, I was not given food to eat,” she remembers. “
In the beginning when I was made to spend nights with unknown men, I had the habit of begging for my life in front of them, just to see if I would be spared. Some of them were very nice and would talk to me, give me sweets to eat and sometimes money. One day, one customer got very angry and immediately called the people at the brothel and told them that I refused to cooperate with him.” She was given a good thrashing at the brothel and was threatened to be taken to the police since she was living illegally in India. “Since then, I never argued, but would pray to the almighty that the customer would not hurt me too much.”
Anwara and Rekha were among 24 girls rescued by Oasis, a human rights organisation in India who work with the NGO ‘Rights Jessore’ to return trafficked girls to Bangladesh. Rights Jessore Officer Tawfique – uz – Zaman said that Anwara’s parents finally allowed her to return home after a stay in a shelter but the situation for Rekha is much worse. “Her father refuses to take her back,” Tawfique said. “Her mother is deaf and mute and was abandoned by her husband a long time ago. She wants to bring her daughter back home, but can’t do so because she has no money, food or a home herself.”
Stigma and taboo associated with sexual exploitation means that reintegrating trafficked children with their families is a huge issue in Bangladesh. The issue is further compounded if the children return with Sexually Transmitted Infections or HIV/AIDs. Stripped of their dignity, returned children, including Anwara and Rekha, are reminded every day by their families and communities of the nightmare they experienced.
Although reliable data on the extent of sexual exploitation and related child trafficking are not available, it is a known fact that Anwara and Rekha are not isolated cases. Many more girls are being trafficked every day within and outside Bangladesh for prostitution. In most cases, the abusers are known to the victims and victims and their parents are deceived by false promises. The lack of awareness among children, their families and communities regarding child rights and the risks of abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking increases adolescents’ vulnerability.
NGOs like Rights Jessore alert people on these issues and prevent new cases. More than 100 Community Care Committees have been established at a community level in 25 districts to carry out prevention and sensitization activities and to develop community based child protection mechanisms. These NGOs also help rehabilitate the girls who have been rescued. With technical support from UNICEF, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and the Ministry of Social Welfare, in consultation with other stakeholders, drafted a National Guideline and Minimum Standard of Integration of Victims to ensure the protection and best interests of each child and also post integration rehabilitation. The guideline is in the process of government approval.
UNICEF has also been working with the governments of Bangladesh and India to improve the cross-border cooperation for the rescue, recovery, repatriation and integration of trafficked child victims and to better prevent child trafficking. “A draft joint plan of action has been developed to establish a systematic, harmonised and uniform procedure for rescue, recovery, repatriation and integration of children trafficked between both countries”, explains Child Protection Officer, Shabnaaz Zahereen. “Such a coordinated approach will help to cut down illegal activities happening across the Bangladesh/ India border and also help to repatriate victims ensuring the protection and best interests of the child. But a lot remains to be done to implement the plan and protect children.”