Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls the SAARC Way: Combat Human Trafficking

Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls the SAARC Way: Combat Human Trafficking

South Asia is ranked as the fastest growing regions of the world. According to a World Bank report, the economic growth is forecast to gradually accelerate from 7.1 per cent in 2016 to 7.3 per cent in 2017i. In the backdrop of the regional economic prospect, it is pertinent to unveil the fact that this part of the world beholds wide socio-economic inequalities. 

For instance, the South Asia region stands second last in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index , just ahead of the Middle East and North Africa and behind the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Most of the countries in South Asia rank very low in the Global Gender Gap Indexii. While, Bangladesh and India, the top-ranked countries in the region have closed just under 70 and 68 per cent of their overall gender gap respectively, Bhutan and Pakistan, the lowest ranked countries in the region, have managed only 64 and 56 percent respectively.  

This shows that the economic growth is clearly not inclusive enough to address the development challenges of the region.  The patriarchal social institutions, formal mechanisms and the negative social norms that reinstates various culture, practices and beliefs is posing blockades to building gender equal societies in the region. 

The countries from the SAARC nations i.e. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The SAARC countries — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives — meet once every year and as agreed upon by the SAARC Charter, discuss issues related to economic growth, social progress and cultural development. While the SAARC Charter demands that individuals have the opportunity to live in dignity and realize their full potentialiii , the Global Gender Gap Index and many more data shows otherwise. 

Sample this- one in every two women in South Asia  face violence in her daily life. South Asia also has the highest rates of child marriages  in the world with almost half (45 percent) of all women aged 20-24 reported being married before the age of 18; almost one in five girls (17 per cent) are married before the age of 15. 

In India and Pakistan irrespective of the perpetrator, around 40 per cent viever-married women (15-49 years) experience physical violence at least once in their life time. The VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) Survey (2011) by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Planning shows that 72 per cent of ever-married women experience psychological violence and 33 per cent of ever-married women experience physical violence from current husbandvii . According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 1096 women (of whom 170 were minors, under the age of 18) were killed for ‘honour’ in 2015viii .

Though five countriesix(Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) have legislation against sexual harassment and four countries (Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Bangladesh) have laws to prohibit Domestic Violence, the region still witnesses alarming rates of violence against women and girls. These manifests in the form of domestic violence and intimate partner violence, rapes, acid attacks, harassments in workplace and other public spaces, cybercrimes and stalking, witch hunting, honour killing, child marriages, sex-selective abortions etc.  

Crimes against women and girls have increased significantly over the decades, sadly with very low conviction rates. Women are victimized, exploited and excluded from accessing the legal rights. Only a fraction of the cases gets registered due to the barriers posed by insensitive formal institutions, social stigma and denial of speedy justice and ongoing conflicts in the countries contributing to a non-conducive external environment. 

The question that arises then is what is the commitment of SAARC countries in addressing violence against women and girls? 

The issue of violence against women and girls was not mentioned in any of the SAARC Declarations till 1997x . In the 10th SAARC declaration in Colombo (1998) the situation of women and children was discussed and condemned by the member states. In the summit, the SAARC Member States endorsed the need for a gender-disaggregated database to catalyze the formulation of national and regional policies and programs with regards to women and the girl childxi . The data was to be provided by the member states. 

During the 11th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu (January 2002), the seven member States signed the Regional Convention on Preventing and Combating the Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution. South Asiav is the second largest region with trafficking in the world. 

For instance, Afghanistan is a destination for women and girls from China, Iran, and Tajikistan trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Tajik women and children are also believed to be trafficked through Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran for commercial sexual exploitation. Mainly young girls and women are trafficked for sexual exploitation in places such as cabin/dance restaurants, massage parlours, and other places within the tourism sector. India is also a transit country for women and girls from Nepal and Bangladesh trafficked to Pakistan, Western Asia, and the Middle East and for women trafficked from the Russian Federation to Thailand. Sri Lanka is a source and destination country for men and women trafficked for the purposes of involuntary servitude and commercial sexual exploitation. 

Following the Summit, a regional task force was formed in 2002 to monitor and assess implementation of the Convention on Trafficking and countries agree on action points to report to the task force. Bangladesh passed the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act (2012) prohibiting and punishing all forms of human trafficking. In January 2012, the Ministry of Home Affairs in Bangladesh promulgated a new National Plan of Action for Combating Human Trafficking for 2012-2014, which included plans to implement the new law. In India, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) established Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs), which were responsible for combining law enforcement and rehabilitation efforts. India has drafted the Trafficking of Persons Bill in 2016.

In 2006, the Pakistan National Assembly and Senate passed a landmark bill and amended the Hudood Ordinance, with the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act of 2006 with provisions on trafficking. Sri Lanka prohibited all forms of trafficking through an April 2006 amendment to its penal code, which prescribed up to 20 years’ imprisonment. In Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) formed an anti-trafficking in person’s unit with approximately 20 officers in 2011.  In Nepal, an Office of the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Women and Children (ONRT) was established in 2002 under the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), whose responsibility is to monitor anti-trafficking initiatives. Unlike other South Asian countries, Maldives and Bhutan have no laws on trafficking and the government is completely unaware on the issue of human trafficking. 

In 2012, member states took stock of the status of implementation of their anti-trafficking rules. At a workshopxii for SAARC member state representatives, held in India, the country delegates shared that in spite of the legal instruments, trafficking of women and girls continued to be a burning issue in their countries and that there were enforcement challenges of the anti-trafficking legislations. In Afghanistan, the anti-trafficking in person’s unit did not have dedicated full-time officers. The lack of immigration control for Nepalese migrating to India or Indians coming in Nepal (under the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty between India and Nepal) is a challenge in enforcing legislation. 

The dearth of quantitative data on trafficking, inadequate coordination between actors within the country, open-borders especially between Nepal and India, lack of enforcement of laws due to increasing communal violence, political instability in countries, corruption, and low priority of anti-trafficking activities at country level are the main implementation challenges in the region.  

Thus, an analysis of the SAARC Declarations reveals that Colombo Declaration marks a milestone in combating trafficking of women and girls in the region. However, except for trafficking, there is no specific regional commitment in addressing violence against women and girls in public and private spaces.  Explorations on anti-trafficking efforts in the region inform us that sub-regional groups, taskforces and action plans are not part of the formal processes to ensure that the national mechanisms formulate gender sensitive policies, effectively implement and report to SAARC for ensuring the creation of gender equal and violence free societies in the region. This demands the need for more regional advocacy for an upfront agenda in ending violence against women and girls in the future SAARC declarations.


Written by: Rajini R. Menon Regional Gender Coordinator, Oxfam India
















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