FAISALABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Zunaira Muhammad was 15 years old and dreamed of becoming a software engineer when the woman who promised to finance her education forced her into sex work.
Five years later she can barely stand, the soles of her feet are so damaged from beatings. A laddered scar runs all the way beside her right shin. The woman was part of a human trafficking ring, and after Zunaira escaped with the help of her brother-in-law, the gang attacked her home and pumped bullets into her leg.
“Sir, they can eliminate me. For God’s sake, protect me from the beasts,” the Pakistani woman, now 20, said as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Zunaira and her family are living in hiding outside their home city of Faisalabad. Her elder sister Qammar Sajjad Ashraf sat by her side as she spoke in a safe house. They are trying to elude the traffickers and corrupt police and government officials, whom her family and lawyer say are in the pay of powerful Pakistani gangs that ferry young girls back and forth to Gulf states selling them for sex.
A neighbour, Ayesha Ashfaq, had persuaded Zunaira’s mother five years ago to let her daughter live with her, and in exchange for some housework, she promised to pay for Zunaira’s studies. Instead Ashfaq lured her to Dubai to work in a beauty parlour and sold the girl’s body for sex. Zunaira said Ashfaq would torture her and never let her out of her sight, unless she was with a client.
“My whole life is destroyed. I want to pursue my studies but cannot go to school due the stigma attached to me,” Zunaira said.
“Sir, what will happen now?” she asked repeatedly during the interview. “They will get me soon because they want to take me back to a flat in a high rise in Dubai.”
Her story is not unusual. A significant number of girls and women are trafficked from Pakistan to the Gulf for dancing jobs and sexual exploitation although exact numbers are hard to pin down, according to a United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report on human trafficking to and from Pakistan, released there in February.
Factors that facilitate this trafficking, experts said, are widespread bribery of government officials to give under-age girls travel documents, government failure to distinguish between trafficking and illegal immigration making the scale of the crime harder to identify and to prosecute, police corruption, and a culture where women’s rights are not respected so that families give permission to prostitute a daughter as a form of bride price.
“The consent of the individual woman is considered less important or even irrelevant, particularly when a family gives consent for a girl or a woman to be taken out of Pakistan for sex,” said Farzana Bari, director of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, who wants to see toughened legislation to protect women.
Pakistan is one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking, according to the anti-slavery group Walk Free Foundation. It estimates that over 2 million people are enslaved there, ranking it third after Mauritania and Haiti in its Global Slavery index.
In its report, the UNODC said 823 victims of trafficking were referred to shelters in Pakistan in 2012, the latest period for which data are available. More than three quarters of them were female and 60 were minors, but it has no information on the type of exploitation they suffered.
Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, which is charged with preventing all types of trafficking under a 2002 act and implementing a National Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, says that about 30 to 35 traffickers operate in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province in the north west, bordering militant tribal areas near Afghanistan where reports are plentiful of trafficking in women and children. They are recruited to work as dancers and singers, or sometimes for domestic work, FIA said.
But it keeps no records on the number of human trafficking cases. Ce’sor Guedes, the UNODC’s country representative, said FIA also conflates trafficking with the separate offense of illegal immigration for which there were 5 million cases in 2011. Those numbers may be even larger today, given the flood of refugees from Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Department of Interior spokesman Daniyal Gilani confirmed that some FIA agents and police are aiding and abetting criminals. However, he said the ministry has sacked a few officials and sent “honest officials” to key locations, bringing trafficking much more under control.
FIA data for 2012, the most recent available, show that 40 officials were under investigation for complicity in human trafficking, one person was dismissed and 33 others were punished.
None of these reforms have helped bring justice for Zunaira or her family.
She escaped from Ayesha Ashfaq in March 2013 after contacting her elder sister and brother-in-law Sajjad Ashraf by telephone during one of her many trips trafficked back to Faisalabad from Dubai. Elderly residents in the neighborhood where Ashfaq held her captive intervened and managed to help free her, she said.
But the police went after Zunaira’s family. Her brother-in-law, who is head of the family, was arrested on charges of stolen property and tortured by police for refusing to reach an agreement with the traffickers for Zunaira’s return, he said. His wife said that the police and the relative of a local politician allegedly are protecting the trafficking gang.
“During the time my husband was detained, my sisters and I slept in a public park in Faisalabad city due to our fear of being kidnapped,” Qammar Sajjad Ashraf said.
Zulfiqar Bhutta, a lawyer for the family who practices before the Supreme Court, said rampant corruption in law enforcement agencies allows traffickers to remain at large. He would like to see special courts set up to handle trafficking cases.
“Police officials have been bribed by the wealthy, individual traffickers as not a single culprit who fired at Zunaira has been been arrested so far,” Bhutta said.
He is preparing a motion to transfer the case to Islamabad in an attempt to limit the influence of the traffickers. Meanwhile, Bhutta has been threatened outside the Faisalabad courthouse for his interest in Zunaira’s case and the police have provided him with security.
Zunaira is receiving counseling at a shelter run by Sonia Naaz, herself the victim of a gang rape in Faisalabad. Naaz said that while the physical scars remain visible, Zunaira’s mental state is her main concern.
Ambition was her undoing, said Ashraf, her brother-in-law. “The desire to become an engineer is what landed Zunaira in trouble.”
Zunaira remains undeterred. She is planning to apply for college and her father has promised to let her continue her education.
“My elderly father, who is a labourer, told me that he will go to market and then he will purchase books for me at the end of the day,” she said.
((Editing by Stella Dawson))
(Azam Khan is a journalist for the Express Tribune in Pakistan, who freelances for Thomson Reuters Foundation)