Sunday, March 26, 2006

The World's Disgrace: Sex Trafficking

Nicholas Kristof (see below) turns his attention to the plight of a 20 year old woman imprisoned, tortured, and sexually abused since her kidnapping at the age of 14. Sex trafficking is most definitely alive and growing strong in Pakistan.

This is an international problem crying out for our attention. As Americans, what will we do?

A Woman Without Importance
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
KHANPUR, Pakistan

Aisha Parveen doesn't matter. She's simply one more impoverished girl from the countryside, and if her brothel's owner goes ahead and kills her, almost no one will care.

Ms. Parveen, an outspoken 20-year-old woman with flashing eyes, is steeling herself for a state-administered horror. Just two months after she escaped from the brothel in which she was tortured and imprisoned for six years, the courts are poised to hand her back to the brothel owner.

Sex trafficking, nurtured by globalization and increased mobility, is becoming worse. The U.N. estimates that one million children are held in conditions of slavery in Asia alone. Yet it never gets much attention, because the victims tend to be the least powerful people in these societies: poor and uneducated rural girls.

Ms. Parveen was a 14-year-old Pashtun living in the northwest of Pakistan when she was hit on the head while walking to school. She says she awoke to find herself imprisoned in a brothel hundreds of miles away, in this remote southeastern Pakistani town of Khanpur.

A person of unbelievable strength, Ms. Parveen fought back and refused to sleep with customers. So, she says, the brothel owner — Mian Sher, the violent sadist who had kidnapped her — beat and sexually tortured her, and regularly drugged her so that she would fall unconscious and customers could do with her as they liked.

This went on for six years, during which she says she was beaten every day. The girls in the brothel were forced to sleep naked at night, so that they would be too embarrassed to try to escape. Ms. Parveen says she believes that two of them, Malo Jan and Suwa Tai, were killed after they repeatedly refused to sleep with customers. In any case condoms were never available, so all the girls may eventually die of AIDS.

I wanted to look into the eyes of a man who could do these things. So I barged into Mian Sher's brothel, identified myself and interviewed him.

He warily offered me tea, pleasantries and flashes of violent temper. He denied kidnapping Ms. Parveen, saying that he had married her six years earlier. He also denied that he pimped the girls — a claim undermined by a customer who was walking out of his brothel as I arrived. Others working in the area said that Mian Sher unquestionably ran a brothel, and that Ms. Parveen had been imprisoned in it.

In January, Ms. Parveen got a break. A metalworker, Mohamed Akram, had been doing work in the brothel, and he pitied her. "She laid her scarf down on my feet and begged me, in the name of the Holy Koran, to rescue her," he remembers, and soon he felt not only pity but also love.

So on Jan. 5, Ms. Parveen stealthily arose in the middle of the night, crept past Mian Sher and padlocked the door with him inside. Then she ran to a car that Mr. Akram had sent. The next day, they were married.

Then the judicial nightmare began. Mian Sher brought charges against the couple, claiming that Ms. Parveen is his wife and must return to him.

"The police have taken money from him," Ms. Parveen said. "They say, 'You're married to him, so you should go back to him.' Well, I would rather die than go back to the brothel."

The police are now prosecuting Ms. Parveen for adultery. She is free on bail, but thugs have attacked her home and tried to kidnap her.

Mian Sher told me his plan: if Ms. Parveen is jailed for adultery, then as her supposed husband he will bail her out and take her away. Ms. Parveen says she believes he will then rape and torture her, and finally kill her.

So the judicial system, while ignoring the sex trafficking of children, may now, in the name of morality, hand a young woman over to a brothel owner to do with her as he wants.

The new abolitionism, against sex trafficking, is being pushed in America by an unlikely coalition of religious conservatives and liberal feminists; leaders include the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Ecpat, Equality Now and International Justice Mission. But progress is slow because the victims tend to be voiceless young people like Ms. Parveen.

Whether Ms. Parveen is returned to her brothel owner and killed may be, in terms of global issues, a small matter. But after spending a couple of days with this smart and lovely young woman, after seeing her in moments of giddy laughter and terrified weeping, I can't help thinking that slavery should be just as outrageous in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.

A court hearing to decide Ms. Parveen's fate is scheduled for tomorrow here in Khanpur. I'll let you know what happens.

In case you missed it, here are two recent videos: "Win a Trip With Nick Kristof" and "Darfur: The Genocide Spreads."

Photo credit: The police in Pakistan are prosecuting Aisha Parveen for adultery because she ran away from a brothel. (Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times)


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