It's been two months since 22-year-old Champa (not her real name) went missing. One fateful day, a neighbour approached and told her about a job opening in Dhaka. For Champa, this was a breakthrough she had been waiting for some time. Life had changed drastically after her husband of three years walked out on her, leaving her without any support. She then moved in with her elder brother's family in Satkhira that consisted of his wife and their four children. The situation became dire following the lockdown imposed in March. With no daily income coming in from the shop where the brother was working, life became unbearable for all of them. So the prospect of a job in Dhaka came as a way out for Champa to provide for herself and her brother's family. For this "opportunity", Champa had to give the lady the gold ornaments she had saved. Unfortunately, that was the last time she was ever seen by her family.
Champa is among the hundreds of people in Bangladesh who go missing through trafficking every year. In 2019, a total of 592 people were reported missing, according to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report of the US government. Sadly, these cases mostly go unreported owing to the patriarchal culture and bad governance in Bangladesh. Sometimes the community tends to abandon the entire family of a victim once a case is reported. Efforts to involve the police in such cases usually yield little results. So, families like Champa's suffer silently for fear of embarrassment from neighbours and friends.
For Champa's brother, the embarrassment is so profound that he fears he may be unable to marry off his 13-year-old daughter due to the stigma facing his family after the disappearance of his sister. He said, "Men from decent families are usually unwilling to marry a woman from a family where someone was trafficked."
There are valid concerns that the number of girls and women being trafficked has spiked due to the impact of Covid-19 that has thrown millions of families into poverty after the lockdown and the resultant economic downturn. Many people have lost their daily source of income and facing severe hardship.
According to the TIP report from the USA, Bangladesh has succeeded in reducing trafficking after making progress in convicting offenders, establishing anti-trafficking tribunals and conforming to the 2000 UN Trafficking in Person protocols. However, the gains achieved may have been undone by the impacts of Covid-19.
The same report also reveals that the country still faces challenges in meeting minimum standards in some of the key areas related to eliminating human trafficking. These include victim care facilities and identification procedure that remain inadequate. The report further shows that the country recorded a reduction in inquiries on trafficking cases by the authorities and law enforcement agencies.
In 2016, World Vision Bangladesh implemented a Child Safety Net Project to reduce children's vulnerability to trafficking, abuse and exploitation and increase rates of identification, rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration in 25 sub-districts across nine districts. The project provided prevention, protection and restoration services for over 286,000 people including over 29,000 males and 119,000 females. A further 55,000 boys and nearly 83,000 girls were reached with various activities at the community level.
However, the project encountered several challenges. Union and upazila based Counter Trafficking Committees (CTCs) are mandated to provide support to the trafficking survivors and to prevent the risk of trafficking in local areas. But many committees were not active at all. One project staff member said, "The CTC members from the district level were well aware of their roles. But CTC members from union and upazila levels thought that only NGOs were responsible for preventing trafficking. Although, later, they understood their roles and ensured cooperation."
Moreover, influential local community members often threatened the project staff as some of them were themselves connected with the traffickers. In some cases, after the survivors were traced, it was difficult for their family to accept them for fear of stigmatisation in their community. Often, the survivors endured traumatic experiences at the hands of the offenders. Consequently, the support they needed most from the families once they came back was missing, pushing them further into depression. The project offered psychosocial counselling for a certain time to bring them back into community life. Cross-border trafficking proved harder to tackle due to the time and cost of bringing survivors back in the country amidst the inadequate support and prevention systems that are in place.
There is no denying that trafficking may lead to suicide or cause mental illness and sustained trauma because of the victims' exposure to sexual abuse, domestic violence and forced prostitution. For preventing trafficking, various interventions are required at different levels.
To reduce the number of trafficking cases, it is important to have strong and functional policies, laws and related structures. Besides, the CTCs at union, upazila and district levels should be strengthened and made properly functional. Awareness campaigns and training programmes should be designed by combining different levels and institutions from the grassroots like small businessmen, faith and community leaders, and educational institutions as well as local government representatives, law enforcement agencies and the media.
To accelerate the process of repatriation, prompt and timely information sharing between various agencies and ministries of neighbouring countries is required on a regular basis. For ensuring rehabilitation of the survivors, long-term institutional support and linking them with income-generating activities are essential. Simultaneously, arranging gender-sensitising awareness programmes for the families and concerned stakeholders should be emphasised to ensure proper acceptance of the survivors. At the same time, it is necessary to address the key aspects of gender discrimination and ensure that women are not marginalised in low-paid labour market.
Champa, like so many victims like her, will probably remain just a statistic without a face but warmly remembered by her family, who are too ashamed to say anything about her disappearance due to the social stigma associated with it. We need to address this.
Bipasha Dutta is National Coordinator of Strategy, Innovation and Knowledge Management, World Vision Bangladesh.