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22nd August 1999

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Gift or grenade?

Women's groups slam convention on trafficking of women

An interview with Nimalka Fernando President of the International Movement Against (all forms of) Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) which is a United Nations accredited non-governmental organisation.

By Farah Mihlar

Women's organisations have expressed concern on a South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) convention on the trafficking of women. Can you explain the purpose of this convention?

Sometime toward the latter part of this year we know that the heads of state of the SAARC region are meeting in Nepal and we know that they are going to put their signature on the convention to combat and prevent the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of prostitution. The whole purpose of this convention is to regulate and to prohibit the trafficking that is taking place across the borders of Nepal and India, Bangladesh and India and Bangladesh and Pakistan. The issue of trafficking with relation to Sri Lanka is not of a significant nature.

How bad is the trafficking of women in the South Asian region?

The trafficking that is taking place between Nepal and Bombay has gone on for a long period of time and according to available statistics, there are more than 200,000 women in Bombay brothels. There are again almost 200,000 women working in the red light districts of Calcutta both from Nepal and Bangladesh and also there is a heavy traffic of Bangladeshi women trafficked into Pakistan. Poverty is the main cause for this trafficking and both legal and illegal methods have been used.

Now all countries specially India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh have recognised this problem and the fact that they are bringing out a convention itself is a matter for us to know they are recognising it as a major crisis in the region that affects women and children.

Why they bring in children is if you look at a country like Nepal it is young girls who are trafficked, young girls between 13-18 years.

In very traditional societies the young girl child is a problem so the easiest thing is to give her in marriage. Men go into these villages, marry these girls, bring them out and then the girl finds her self in a brothel. They have to service customers some times even 50 times a day and they don't even get the money properly. The man comes regularly to collect the money and she is virtually a prisoner because she can't go back as she does not have a passport. She is legally married to this man whom she cannot divorce.

What have you identified as flaws in this convention?

Women's organisations came across this convention last year. There were several group discussions in Nepal groups and Bangladesh where we have reviewed the convention and while we appreciate the fact that the convention is coming into being we see a lot of problems.

First thing is that in the women's organisations and even in the UN level there is a principle where we say women and children should not be lumped together.

Now the SAARC convention has lumped women and children together. When you put women and children together you apply the same standards that you apply for the protection of children to women.

Therefore if you look at the terminology that you find right through the convention the issue of women's independence and protection of child rights have been woven together and it is very difficult to apply certain clauses in the same breath. For instance definition in relation to repatriation.

Now when a woman is brought to Bombay brothels and if the police should raid the brothels, if the woman is above 18 the issue of repatriation is a forced thing.

But actually she must have a choice whether she would like to return home, but if a child is found in a brothel then the law enforcement authorities can always use force and repatriate her. In repatriation we know there can be violence, intimidation and force so when it comes to the life of a woman who is a mature woman the term repatriation will not be useful.

Her women's rights her choice is not recognised in the convention. We are saying use terminology like safe return home, where there is a choice.

What are the other problems you see?

The other problems with regard to the convention is that up to date there are certain UN standards which speak of women's rights. We need to see to what extent has the convention articulated the agreed international standards with regard to women's human rights.

If you look at that convention it is still woven with Indian law and order it doesn't give prominence to the women and women's violence. In discussing about prohibition the convention has used the same burden of proof methodology that is in criminal jurisprudence in South Asia. There are certain protection given if she wants to prosecute but then the national governments have to enact laws.

There is no provision, which binds national governments to enact such law.

The other problem is there is no monitoring mechanism, who is going to see which government is going to implement the provision of the convention and change their laws. We need at least a regional tribunal, we need an effective regional mechanism that would monitor the implementation of the convention. We have the UN conventions but the member states of the UN will always bring in excuses to say that because of our culture and traditions we cannot implement the provisions with regard to women's rights in the same way the western countries would do. So we don't want this particular convention also to go into cultural relativism or jurisprudential relativism.

With this convention you also have a document where the accountability of the states and the obligations of the countries look the same when actually India receives more women than neighbouring countries. So could you place India and Nepal in the same obligation mechanism?

What is the attitude of governments to changing the convention now?

Unfortunately when we used to call it a draft officials of the foreign ministries have corrected us and said it is no longer a draft, it is a convention which will come into force in December.

Then what really do you expect?

After several months of deliberating on the convention, women's organisations are making a request for a revision of some of the provisions even if it is going to be signed. We are being told to accept it because we won't get any thing else. We say, we don't want a gift that we don't want, we don't want a grenade to explode on our face if that is given as a gift. From a women's human rights perspective it is not a convention that speaks well of South Asian intellect. We have academia; we have people with great knowledge with regard to feminist jurisprudence. I am very harsh on this convention in that line. South Asia should produce a standard a model that the international community could accept. This document is presently not showing any reflection of high international human rights standards. It is a very technical document, which is trying to protect the interest of borders and trying to protect the immigration and emigration policies of the receiving country.

What course of action does your organisation plan to take?

We are lobbying the ministers not to sign, we are requesting the heads of state to revise it and enter into discussions with non-governmental organisations (NGO). Give access to NGOs to make representation as this matter is not merely a foreign ministry matter.

Even if they sign most of us will not accept it, so we will have to continue to lobby for the revision of it. That is why we are asking them to postpone the signing.

What effect do you see this convention is having on Sri Lanka, considering we don't have a problem of trafficking of women?

The issue would be that Sri Lanka being a country that has given leadership in terms of women's mobility and things like that, I think the Sri Lankan government must play a leading role in studying this convention and not pushing it through. We don't have statistics to say the Sri Lankan government will benefit by this because we don't have trafficking but we are going to participate in a regional convention.

The Sri Lankan government has to play a leading role in reviewing this because the UN special rapporteur on women is a Sri Lankan and we have people like Prof. Savithri Goonasekera who are consultants to the UN on things like child rights. So the Sri Lankan government can provide these resources to the SAARC region in reformulating the convention..

There are also reports of trafficking women on the way to the Middle East who stop over in Bombay and Karachi. Some people would share those instances with me as trafficking.

There is not a large but sizeable population in the Bombay brothels from Sri Lanka. We have not got actual statistics but I have even heard that there are several Tamil girls in some of the Bombay brothels this could be explained as possible trafficking. There could be a possibility of armed groups using women in the process of trafficking of arms and drugs.

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