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Sex Trafficking In Relation To Marriage Customs In Khyber-Pashtunkhwa

By SesapZai

Last semester, for my Gender and Development class, I decided to do my final research paper on the trends of women trafficking – Pashtun women in particular – and how they get induced into the sex trade through the semblance of marriage. And, initially, I wasn’t going to share excerpts of this paper, due to its highly controversial nature; but one of my dearest and closest friends is currently doing extensive research on sex trafficking and child marriages for a humanitarian project, and I’d promised her that I’d send her information in the form of a blog post.

However, before I go any further, I must let my reader know that when I was conducting research to write this paper (mostly secondary, of course, as it would have been difficult to get permission from the university to do primary fieldwork research, because I’d have to fill out consent forms and a mandatory REB [Research Ethics Board] form, which would have taken months to get approved), I found it rather difficult to find information. I did come across a couple very good reports, one of which I used quite extensively throughout my paper. It was a very thorough and well-researched report written by Mohammad Amin, titled, A Research Study on the Trends and Causes of Women Trafficking in NWFP, Pakistan, which was commissioned by CAMP (Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme) in collaboration with the Gender Justice and Protection Project at the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). If anyone is interested in reading that paper, please get in touch with me personally, using my contact information provided on my blog, and I would be more than happy to share it with you.

Anyway, other than that particular report, there wasn’t much I could find, especially at my university library, nor in the online journal databases like JSTOR, Primo, etc. And there could perhaps be many reasons for this: 1) It is too dangerous a topic and may put a researcher’s life at risk as the issue is very “culturally sensitive” and Pashtuns may not take too kindly to “outsiders” invading into their space and writing about something that may further degrade them (as a race); 2) As researchers, we could put the lives of the victims further at risk if we were to intervene by trying to interview them about how they ended up in the sex trade, granted the researcher is even allowed access to the victims; 3) Sex trafficking could be a new phenomenon, and it could be possible that it wasn’t considered an issue in the region a few decades ago, as compared to now, where more and more people are starting to realize what a dire issue it is and how degrading it is to force young women and girls into the sex trade. (Child marriages fall into this too, where young girls as young as nine or 10 years old get married off to much older men, who then may force them into the sex trade.)

Further, I realize that I’ve limited this research to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is probably why the information that was available to me was limited too. However, in the future, I plan to look deeper into sex trafficking trends not only in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but also in Afghanistan, and how Pashtun women are being affected by it. But that is something that will require primary, on-the-ground research, as secondary research is never as fulfilling, or as rewarding, especially since my being an academic and my plans to dedicate my whole life to research. And when that day comes, I’ll be sure to share my findings with you all. Let’s hope it will be sooner, rather than later.

So, below, I’ve provided some excerpts from the final research paper I wrote last month. Just so that my reader understands, the numbers ([1],[2],[3], etc.) within the text depict the references I’ve used to write this paper. And, again, if you are interested in finding out what journals and books I used to write this paper, please get in touch with me personally and I’ll be more than happy to share the whole reference list with you. Also the […] means that there is more in that particular paragraph, but I’ve only shared parts that I thought were most important for my readers. Unfortunately, I cannot and will not share my whole paper, so please do not ask me to send you a copy. Many apologies in advance! But please do leave your comments and feedback, as they are always welcomed!

Trafficking in humans, especially women and girls, is a manifestation of many of the complex social issues facing the global society today. Recently, a growing concern about the global violence against women put trafficking on the international agenda. Its connection with the sex industry, bonded and exploitative labour, HIV/AIDS and other forms of human rights violations, has further added exigency to global anti-trafficking efforts, particularly in South Asia [1]. Yet, discrimination against women is one of burning concern, for it leads to desertion; divorce, or a husband taking on a second, third or fourth wife; dowry issues; and early marriages; for these also play an important role in making women susceptible and easy targets for traffickers [2]. South Asia is most often seen as the most vulnerable region for human trafficking, due to its large (and continuously increasing) population, growing urbanization, and persistent poverty […]

Nevertheless, human trafficking is a major concern in most parts of the world (not only in South Asia), and is considered to be one of the fastest growing areas of international criminal activity. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2004), “human trafficking comes under the category of transitional crime; which is plaguing nations and countries towards illicit outcomes, also known as ‘modern day slavery’.” It has also been reported that about 800,000 people are trafficked each year worldwide for forced labour, domestic servitude, and most commonly, sexual exploitation [...]

Human trafficking is a rather complex phenomenon and is supported by the tremendous growth in the global sex market. Traditionally, the word “trafficking” was used to describe kidnapping and enslavement of workers – usually women and girls – in the commercial sex industry. However, recent developments have adopted much broader definitions of the term, addressing both working conditions as well as how a person is recruited, or treated, at a subsequent stage [1]. This is further reflected in the definition adopted by the United Nations:

Trafficking refers to the recruitment, transportation, purchase, sale, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons: by threat, use of violence, abduction, use of force, fraud, deception, or coercion (including abuse of authority or of a position of vulnerability), or of the giving and receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another or debt bondage, for the purpose of exploitation which includes prostitution or for placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in forced labour or slavery-like practices, in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original act described.

The UN Protocol, hence, provides the internationally accepted definitions of human trafficking. Though, it could be argued that in many countries, where human trafficking is most prevalent, confounding issues such as persistent gender biases, overly generalized laws, and abuses of legal migration distort the enforcement of this widely accepted definition [1]. Thus, governments often fail to prevent trafficking or punish traffickers, and routinely violate the human rights of trafficked victims. Common problems with anti-trafficking legislation include: a misplaced need to protect women, which results in a legislation that ends up disempowering women (rather than empowering them), limiting their mobility within and across borders; combination of trafficking-related abuses with other types of abuses, such as rape, child pornography, prostitution, and battering; and confusion of trafficking with other types of “irregular” migration, such as illegal migration or human smuggling […].

Pakistan is one of the main regions of origin for the trafficking of women. Poverty, gender discrimination, lack of education, and lack of rights are some of the underlying causes that make women most susceptible to the trafficking phenomenon. In addition to being the region of origin, Pakistan is also a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked persons. Women and girls are trafficked to Pakistan from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, Burma, Nepal, and Central Asia for commercial sexual exploitation and bonded labour; these girls and women mostly hail from poor rural areas and are trafficked to urban centres [1][…]

Although, human trafficking exists in all four provinces in Pakistan, its nature and scope is quite different in Khyber-Pashtunkhwa, in that it exploits not only women but also young girls, who are well under the age of 18. This usually occurs through the guise of marriage customs. Thus, this section of the paper will go into detail explaining how and why these young girls get trafficked through marriage rituals, and its ill-fated consequences.

It appears that the most notorious form of women trafficking within the Khyber-Pashtunkhwa region is the practice of “selling” young brides for a price. This practice is common in many districts of the region, where it is known as walwar. Though walwar originates from the tribal tradition of Afghanistan, it is the most common Pashto term for bride price. More specifically, walwar is the sum of money paid by the groom or his family to the head of the bride’s household. Out of this sum, the bride’s family may provide the couple with a dowry (or “jahez”), which usually consists of furniture and jewelry/clothes. Basically, walwar is a payment to the bride’s family in consideration of the girl, who is given away in marriage, and is not specifically directed to be spent on the provision of a dowry. Though, it appears that walwar may also be arranged in order to reimburse the parents of the bride for the financial loss they suffered, while raising their daughter; hence, justifying the notion that having a daughter is a burden […]

This practice of walwar, however, is far more common in Khyber-Pashtunkhwa than in any other region in the country (Pakistan). It has been noted that over the last few decades, walwar marriages have spread from a confined group of districts, such as Swat, Chitral, and other more tribal areas, to the larger mainstream settled districts. There is also evidence that in some areas, the traditional custom has transformed into a trade that is becoming acceptable as a valid form of commercial business [3] […]. However, the consideration is not so much on the age of the girl, but rather on the bride price that would be distributed among the dealmakers, middlemen, and protectors. In the majority of these cases, the price ranges from Rs. 100,000 to Rs. 150,000, which is roughly about  CDN $1,015 to CDN $1,500 [3].

It is also important to note that young girls who receive proposals from the much older bridegroom are seldom for the first marriage. Most of these proposals are for second marriages of the bridegrooms, the widower, or the divorcee. Although, the idea underlying walwar is to provide some financial relief to the girl’s parents who purchase jewelry, clothes, furniture, etc. as dowry for their daughters, it is not a legal or customary obligation; for walwar very often does not necessarily benefit the girl’s family, nor does it flow into the expenses for the wedding ceremony [4]. Further, the amount of walwar also varies not only from province to province within Khyber-Pashtunkhwa, but also on whether the girl is a virgin or not. The importance of virginity is taken into much consideration, for usually if the girl is a virgin (meaning that she’s never had sexual relations nor been married before), the amount is usually twice or even thrice as much to that of a woman who was previously married and was now divorced/widowed […]

However, historically, walwar was known to be a practice of honour and prestige, where the higher the walwar, the higher the esteem of the husband’s family for the bride. However, of recent, the concept of walwar has become very skewed and contemptuous, as it is associated more specifically with the “selling of girls.” […]. There is also evidence that girls may also be brought into prostitution or resold for commercial sex later on [5]. There is much negative stigma with the practice of walwar, where the spread of the demand for bride-price trafficking is due to the commercial form that the local custom has acquired in recent years. The families most vulnerable to the practice of walwar or bride-price trafficking are usually the poorest, and those at the lowest end of the social ladder. These groups generally have no property, and survival is a challenge for them on a daily basis [3]. In order to survive, families are forced to sell their daughters to wealthy older men assuming that their daughter will live a happy and financially-stable life, when in veracity most get trafficked into the sex trade. Hence, the main factors driving bride-price trafficking is extreme poverty, lack of women’s rights, and more importantly low social justice, which play a large role in the continuation of such cultural malpractices in the region […]

Another form of custom in which young girls are given away in marriage is the Pashtun tradition of swara. This is a custom in which sisters and daughters are given away in marriage in order to settle tribal disputes and “blood” feuds, or simply to end an old rivalry [5]. Young girls are given into swara marriages as a “compensation” for murder, adultery, abduction, and kidnapping committed by the men of the family. Girls are compelled to sacrifice themselves for their father, brother, or uncle for a crime that they didn’t commit. These young girls are usually married off without their consent, where decisions of the marriage are made and arranged by the men in the community [5][...]

Moreover, similar to the history of walwar, the centuries old Pashtun code of conduct, known as Pashtunwali, found swara to be a rather peaceful means to stop bloodshed among rival clans. It was never meant to be considered a negative custom. Traditionally, it was thought that the children born from the rivals shall belong to both opposing families, and by marrying those children off, it was further believed that the feuding will definitely stop in the next generation [6]. Yet, today, practicing swara is described as tyrannical, illegal, and a violation of human rights. The reason is because when a young girl is given away in a swara marriage, there is little chance of a happy life for her due to obvious reasons; as most girls married under swara spend their lives in torment, because their in-laws consider them symbols of a rival family. The young girl is thus loathed by everyone in the family, as she constantly reminds them of their deceased kin. She is destined to go through immense torture because she is not respected and is, hence, gravely mistreated. As a result, she is often beaten, maimed, and in worst cases, sexually exploited or sold into the sex trade [5].

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that a ruling of the Peshawar High Court with regards to practicing swara suggested that a penalty be imposed on anyone upholding this custom and directed the lower courts not to accept any such agreement. Yet, this judgment has been ignored, as the practice is still continuing, especially in murder cases across Pakistan. This is mainly due to the reason that there is no punishment for those who are found to be involved in this inhumane act [6]. In such an oppressive and patriarchal society, these young women and girls do not have the courage, or even the opportunity, to speak a word against the norms of such a conservative society. This, hence, creates greater gender inequalities between women and men, and further pushes young women/girls into the path of obscurity […]

Consequently, the issue of human trafficking, in the Khyber-Pashtunkhwa context, has to be understood in a wider context of social norms, legal status of women, poverty, calamities, war, and power relations. All these factors have an impact on the tolerance for trafficking in the Pashtun society and the reluctance of courts to take legal action [5][…]

© SesapZai December 2012

 The author is a PhD student in international rural development, focusing on Gender and Development of Pashtun women. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter @sesapzai.

Also read: On The Issue Of Walwar (Bride Price) And Marriage Among Pashtuns