We are all commodities. Different parts of us are up for sale, as and when demand dictates, all the time. But it causes significant discomfort in me when vulnerable bodies are transformed into commodities.
Sex trafficking, by definition, is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, including sexual slavery. Like all trade, it has two aspects i.e. demand and supply. According to the International Labour Organization, there are 20.9 million people subjected to forced labour, and 22 percent (4.5 million) who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. However, due to the secrecy of sex trafficking, obtaining reliable statistics is difficult.
Although there are no comprehensive empirical studies available on the subject, the threat of trafficking to refugees living in camps is evident and extensive. People attempting to escape their homes, or send family members out of conflict zones, are extremely vulnerable, and at much higher risk of trafficking. Most victims find themselves in coercive or abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.
With the multiplication and intensification of regional conflicts around the world, an alarming increase in human trafficking has also become clear in these regions, both into and out of conflict zones. The ongoing crisis in Syria has produced thousands of refugees, many trying to escape to Europe. Political turmoil in Libya has caused trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation purposes as well. There have been occurrences in which traffickers fraudulently recruit individuals, confiscate their documents and use debt bondage to retain control of them. Others have simply been held for ransom until their families can pay to have them released. But these are examples perhaps not so relevant for us.
Let us look at a case that's closer to home. Myanmar is an interesting case of trafficking both within and out of a conflict zone. The country has been in a state of protracted conflict for more than fifty years that is still ongoing. Beginning with the fight for independence post-World War II, the military took control in 1962, and immediately began a crackdown on ethnic minorities within the country.
During the military rule, high rates of trafficking and other human rights abuses prevailed in the region rich in natural resources, and the site of pipelines moving natural gas and oil from the Andaman Sea, through Myanmar, to China. Men, women and children have been subject to forced labour. Women and girls were victims of sexual exploitation, by both the military and the ethnic militias. People have also been trafficked out of the country. Members of the Kachin and Shan ethnic minorities, lacking citizenship or identity documents, have been especially vulnerable as they tried to leave the country. And now, in what is the world's fastest growing refugee crisis, so are the Rohingya.
The current conflict in Rakhine State has led to thousands of Rohingyas fleeing repression in Myanmar who are often trafficked through Thailand to Malaysia. Some of these refugees find themselves trapped in jungle trafficking camps until either their families pay a ransom, or they are forced to work on Thai fishing boats. But what of the more than 600,000 Rohingyas who have fled across the border to southern Bangladesh? The question is usually met with an eerie silence.
Sexual predators and human traffickers are herding to refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border looking to exploit vulnerable Rohingya women and children, stated a Press TV report. Girls, as young as 12, are being sold off in neighbouring countries and forced to marry men more than a decade older than them. The religiously inclined are flocking to the camps to “save young girls by taking their hand in marriage,” those sharing bus rides with the saviours tell me. A growing number of girls are becoming victims of human traffickers who sell Rohingya women and girls to men as brides, various reports have said.
Human traffickers know well who they can and cannot target. People in poverty, and without adequate community or family networks, are easily lured through schemes and promises of legitimate employment. Refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people are vulnerable and thus make perfect candidates.
Reuters reported from the biggest camp in Kutupalong, Cox's Bazar, where the sex industry is thriving. While many of the sex workers are longer term residents of the Bangladeshi camps, the influx of tens of thousands more vulnerable women and girls is expected to fuel the trade. The report cited sources saying that 500 sex workers live here. UN agencies have no public figures on the numbers of sex workers. The locals remain silent as well.
The silence is invoked partly by shame and partly by fear. In a conservative society, where sex in itself is stigmatised, trading sex is even more so. And not surprisingly, while economic theory insists that demand creates supply, when it comes to sex trade, it is only the suppliers we hold accountable. Shame, because the single most important attribute of a woman is her “purity”. Fear, because these women are often faced with threats by those who buy sex. They fear for their dignity and they fear for their lives.
In survival sex, the victim is not necessarily controlled by another person but feels they have to perform sexual acts in order to obtain basic commodities to survive. Trade, however, is, or should be, conducted between equals. When sex workers share common traits—poverty, abusive family members and lack of funds—they are vulnerable, less equal. In such a case, sex that is paid for becomes exploitative. It is no longer trade. It is pure, unadulterated exploitation. The morality of sex trade may be a grey area. But the morality of exploitation is quite black and white.
How often can we assert complete control over our bodies? And even if I could, and even if you could, can bodies that have been bruised and battered and used as battlegrounds afford the same luxury of control?
No. They cannot. They are turned into faceless, nameless, voiceless commodities that get lost in these clandestine marketplaces. Marketplaces we facilitate with our silence.
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.