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Human trafficking: exaggerated numbers:
If media reports are to be believed, there would be no young girls left in Nepal.  RAJASHRI DASGUPTA and LAXMI MURTHY find accurate media coverage on trafficking of women and children lacking.
Posted/Updated Thursday, Jan 29 11:14:43, 2009

                    InfoChange News & Features, January 2009

Today, more than ever before in history, people are moving across the world in search of better opportunities of life and livelihood. Made easier by faster and cheaper means of transport and communication, migration for employment, and its linkages with development as a phenomenon, occurs in most societies the world over.

As global capital moves, so must global labour. In South Asia, the movement of persons in search of greater employment opportunity is usually from the poorer regions, rural areas and less developed regions and countries, to the more developed. With growing urbanisation, availability of services as well as the opportunity to earn cash income, rural migrants are drawn into the big towns and metros. Many argue that people move from labour surplus-low wage areas, to labour shortage-high wage areas. In some cases, migration is also due to political instability and religious persecution.

In 2005, the five major South Asia labour-sending countries (India,Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) sent over 1.5 million migrant workers abroad legally. India sent 549,000 migrants;Bangladesh 253,000; Nepal 184,000. The number of migrants deployed rose in each country by 2007; for instance, according to Migration News 2008, the number of Indians deployed was 800,000, the number of Bangladeshis 833,000.

Remittance by migrant workers is said to be a major pillar that supports the economies of some countries. In 2007, the five majorSouth Asia labour-sending countries received $40 billion in remittances, led by $27 billion in India, $6.4 billion in Bangladeshand $1.6 billion in Nepal. Most South Asians earn about $200 to $400 a month in the Gulf oil-exporting States.

Globalisation, and the phenomenal economic growth in some parts of India, have resulted in complex patterns of migration across borders in the region. According to a 2006 report of the International Labour Organisation, women are increasingly migrating, and now account for half the international migrants. However, media coverage of trafficking of women and children, migration and sex work is confused and inaccurate. The media wrongly uses the terms ¿sex work¿ and ¿trafficking¿ synonymously, perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatization, and contributing to the violation of women¿s right to free movement and livelihood options.

If media reports are to be believed, there would be no young girls left in Nepal. Oft-quoted figures such as 5,000-7,000 Nepali girls being trafficked across the border to India every year and 150,000-200,000 Nepali women and girls being trapped in brothels in various Indian cities, were first disseminated in 1986, and have remained unaltered over the next two decades. The report that first quoted these statistics was from the Indian Health Association, Mumbai, written by AIDS Society of India secretary general, Dr. I S Gilada, and presented in a workshop in 1986. Subsequently, a version of this report was published as an article in The Times of India on January 2, 1989. To date, the source of this figure remains a mystery. Unfortunately, such a lack of clarity is more the norm than the exception when it comes to reporting on trafficking in women and girls.

Not surprisingly, figures about the same phenomenon differ vastly. For example, the news report, ¿Majority of girls trafficked are minors¿, Indian Express, Guwahati, March 9, 2007 cites the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime  (UNODC) as estimating that 150,000 people are trafficked within South Asia. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that between 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across borders. The news report quotes estimates by the same organisations, that between 5,000-10,000 Nepali women are trafficked every year to India for purposes of ¿commercial sexual exploitation¿, with an estimated 40,000-200,000 women and girls from Nepal working in brothels in various cities across India.

However, another report, from a different news agency, IANS, ( India Abroad News Service) that appeared in The Tribune onOctober 24, 2007, quoted the UNODC chief, Gary Lewis, as saying that 5,000-15,000 women and children are trafficked to India fromNepal. Where does the truth lie? Or do 5,000 women this way or that not matter at all?

With the right safeguards in place to protect women without infringing on freedom of movement, migration can be profitable and strengthening, and women should not be discouraged from exercising this right. However, domestic laws, as well as regional laws and policies in South Asia, have not kept pace with these population movements. Security concerns, as well as political upheavals and internal conflict in most of the countries in the region, have also prevented the development of a comprehensive migration policy.

Grey areas

The lack of easy avenues to migrate, has resulted in a plethora of illegal activities and organised crime in the business of getting people/labour across borders. Trafficking for the purpose of debt bondage, child labour, organ trade, begging, sex work and mail-order brides are only some of the more glaring manifestations. Smuggling of persons across the border, through dangerous means, albeit with their consent, is another outcome of the lack of safe migration opportunities. Further problems arise because of the common perception that all movements of women (especially across borders) are forced, and mainly for the purpose of prostitution. This also leads to the conflation of ¿prostitution/sex work¿ with ¿trafficking¿, with these terms wrongly being used synonymously.

Stigmatisation and the perpetuation of stereotypes by the media add to the violation of human rights of each of these categories of persons: migrant workers, trafficked workers and smuggled workers. Within these categories, women are more vulnerable; gender discrimination and violence makes women soft targets of trafficking, while traffickers thrive on vulnerabilities. However, due to these vulnerabilities and risks, all women who migrate are lumped (in popular perception, the media, laws and policies) with children in need of protection. Such a protectionist approach often ends up violating women¿s right to free movement, to livelihood options, and choosing a country of residence.

Globally, anti-trafficking initiatives have stemmed from a crime-control perspective, rather than a human-rights perspective. Thus, the focus tends to be on stamping out a vice through stringent laws and effective enforcement, in order to rid a society of a social evil. Such an approach dwells little on the lived realities of women, their complex situation, and their human rights which might get violated in the process of vice control. The media has tended to mirror and reinforce this view, rather than focus on safe migration for individuals and their families.

Media coverage on issues of trafficking of women and children, migration and sex work over the years has been far from ideal. In the first place, issues of migration and trafficking do not receive adequate coverage in mainstream media, and the quality of

coverage is also a major concern. Moreover, misinformation, alongside commonly held myths, overridden by the prevailing morality, contributes to media coverage of these issues being shoddy and lacking in a factual base. Further, when journalists are unable to recognize and put aside their own prejudices and biases, they are unable to tell it like it is. The attempt to sensationalize the issue, and draw more attention, is also perhaps one contributory factor to ¿spicy¿, but confused headlines and reports.

Facts, lies and statistics

One of the pre-requisites for dealing with this problem is the availability of accurate data from reliable sources. Media coverage on trafficking of women and children clearly reveals scanty and unverified data. Often, data is cited without quoting the source, and even when sources are quoted, the data is varied and contradictory. What is of more concern is that inaccurate ‘facts’ are regularly recycled in the media in the face of evidence that reliable data is scare. Discrepancy in agency reports is particularly significant, because the same report is picked up by publications across India, almost assuming the status of ¿fact¿.

There are conflicting statements given out on these issues by organizations such as the UN and the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau). One such instance is about the main region from where the majority of women are trafficked.  Nepal, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal are variously quoted, with these reports finding their way into the press.  Another such glaring dichotomy is evident in that a Press Trust of India (PTI) report quotes Malini Bhattacharya, member of the National Commission for Women,India, calling human trafficking a “kind of international terrorism”. Yet, the same news item says that it is estimated that 90% ofIndia¿s sex trafficking is internal. The usual stereotype in press accounts is of equating trafficking with prostitution, as evidenced by the  “selling girls for prostitution” reported from various police stations in the country. Further, by mentioning ¿girls¿, it is not clear if it actually means minors, or whether ¿girls¿ also includes adult women. Such ambiguity does not enable an accurate assessment of the problem.

Very little data is available on the actual implementation of the anti-trafficking law, and convictions arising out of this. A rare report can be found on date November 2, 2007(¿5,000 sex workers in Valley: A study¿). According to this report, “About 7% out of the total of 2,210 prisoners are serving jail terms in the Kathmandu valley in cases related to human trafficking. Most of the imprisoned male traffickers are from Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot, Dhading and Makawanpur districts.” However, no source for this data is quoted.

Recycling unverified data

The analysis of newspaper clippings and electronic clips revealed that published data tends to make the rounds of media outlets. Even if the data is not attributed to any reliable source, it is quoted repeatedly. The following is one such example:

The Dainik Bhaskar (Hindi), New Delhi, of January 14, 2007, in a report titled ¿Deh vyapar ka karobar ek lakh karod ka¿ (Flesh trade to the tune of one lakh crore) contains some interesting facts and figures:

1. After drugs and arms trafficking, trafficking in children and women is the next biggest money-spinner in the world.

2. These women and children are used in the sex trade, and the business amounts to 10 billion dollars annually.

3. India shares 1/4th of this booty.

4. In India, 1 crore women are trafficked, and 1 lakh crore rupees change hands.

5. In Mumbai, the women involved in sex trade goes up to 1 lakh.

6. In India, there are 500,000 women from Nepal andBangladesh.

7. Every year, around 10,000 women from Nepal, and 7,000 women from    Bangladesh are trafficked to India on the promise of employment and better marriage prospects.

8. Most of these are below 16 years of age.

9. The girls from Nepal are sold for Rs 2000-60,000.

10. According to the Centre for Development and Population Activities, 200 women are added to the sex trade in Indiaeveryday.

A point to note is that the source for the data for points 1 through 9is attributed to “various human rights agencies and NGOs” without naming them.

Significantly, these statistics were quoted in two news reports on major TV channels in India: The report ¿Tackling Trafficking¿, aired on NDTV 24×7 on December 4, 2007, while reporting the newly launched Ujjwala scheme, quotes the Dainik Bhaskar data, but no primary source. Similarly, a report on Doordarshan on the same day (December 4, 2007) on the Ujjwala scheme, also quotes the same Dainik Bhaskar figures. Journalists must be alert to the process of recycling data without checking original sources, especially when the data thus quoted is contradictory.

Getting off the beaten track

The majority of the reports that appear in the media can be called hand-out journalism – either from official sources, press releases, or NGO publicity materials. Rarely did any of the stories explore new angles, or break new ground in exposing the roots of the problem, nor did they suggest innovative solutions to the problem of trafficking in women and girls. A few articles did attempt to highlight little-known facts, such as the extremely low conviction rate for the crime of human trafficking (¿5,000 sex workers in Valley: A study¿), the lack of training for police (Sreyashi Dastidar¿s ¿Never too young to be sold¿ in The Telegraph, Kolkata, October 15, 2007). But these continue to be rare, illustrating the need for more analytical and investigative reporting of these issues.

This critique of coverage in print, online and electronic media must be read in the context of the crucial role played by the media. The media can also provide a platform for healthy debate and airing divergent views. However, if the media takes it upon itself to play either moral guardian, or police mouthpiece, it is hardly likely that this will generate an informed debate. (Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.)


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