Promoting Anti-Trafficking Moves in the Context of COVID-19

Bipasha Dutta

5 August, 2020 12:00 AM printer

It’s now two months since 22 year old Champa (pseudonym) went missing. On one fateful day, a neighbour approached and told her about a job opening in Dhaka. For Champa, this was a breakthrough she was waiting for some time now. Life had changed drastically after her husband of 3 years walked out, leaving her without any support. She then moved in with her elder brother’s family in Satkhira.  Life was hard and her brother tried to earn a living for his family – a wife, four children and his sister.  The situation becomes dire following the lockdown in March this year. With no daily income coming in from a shop were the brother was working, life become unbearable. So the job offer in Dhaka was a way out for Champa to provide for herself and the brothers family.  For this breakthrough, Champa had to offer the lady the gold ornaments-the last treasure she saved. Unfortunately, that was the last time she was ever seen by her family.

Champa is among the hundreds of people who go missing in Bangladesh through trafficking.  In 2019 alone, a total of 592 cases were reported missing says the Trafficking in Persons report-USA. Sadly these cases mostly go unreported due the patriarchal culture and bad governance of Bangladesh. In families where this happens, the community tends to abandon the entire family where such cases are reported due to the embarrassment they face.

Efforts to involve the police in such cases usually yield negative results. So like many, Champa’s family suffer silently for fear of embarrassment from neighbours and friends.

The embarrassment is so deep seated that now Champa’s brother fears that his family maybe unable to marry off his 13-year old daughter due to the stigma that the family is currently facing after the sister went missing. He said, “Men from reputed families are usually unwilling to marry women from a family from where someone was trafficked”.

There are now fears that the number of girls being trafficked has spiked due the impact of   COVID 19 that has thrown millions of families in poverty after the lockdown that has seen many daily labourers lose their daily incomes.

According to Trafficking in Person report 2020 from USA, Bangladesh succeeded in reducing trafficking, after making progress by convicting offenders, establishing anti-trafficking tribunals and conforming to the 2000 UN trafficking in person protocols. However, the gains mentioned regarding anti-trafficking maybe undone due to the impact of COVID19.

The same report also reveals that the country still faces challenges in meeting minimum standards in some of the key areas to eliminating human trafficking. These include victim care facilities and identification procedure that remain inadequate. The report further shows that the country had recorded a reduction in inquiries on trafficking cases by authorities and law enforcing agencies.

In 2016, World Vision Bangladesh (WVB) implemented 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 9 districts. The project provided prevention, protection and restoration services for over 286,000 people including just over 29,000 males and 119,000females. A further 55,000 boys and almost 83,000 girls were reached with various activities at community level.

However, the project encountered several challenges. Union and Upazila based Counter Trafficking Committees (CTCs) are mandated to provide the support to the trafficking survivors and to prevent the risk of trafficking in local areas. However, many committees were not active at all. One project staff said, “The CTC members from the district level were well aware about their roles. But the CTC members from Union and Upazila levels thought that only NGOs were responsible for preventing trafficking. Though, later they understood their role and ensured cooperation”

Moreover, influential local elites often threatened the project staffs as some of them were connected with the traffickers. In some cases, once the survivals had been traced, it was difficult for the family’s to accept them back in the family for fear of stigmatisation in the community. Often the survivors suffered 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 in depression. The project offered psychosocial counselling for a certain time to bring them back into community life.  Cross border trafficking proved more challenging due to the time and cost of bringing survivors back in the country against an inadequate system.

There is no denying of the fact that heinous act of trafficking may lead to suicide, causing mental illness and complex trauma by promoting sexual abuse, domestic violence and forced prostitution. For preventing trafficking, various interventions are required from different levels.

To reduce the number of trafficking cases, it is important to have strong and functional policies, laws as well as structures. Besides, CTCs at Union, Upazila and district level should be strengthened and well-functional. Awareness, campaign and training programmes should be designed by combining different levels from grassroots like small businessmen, faith leaders, and educational institution to local government representatives, elites, law enforcing agencies and media.

To accelerate the process of repatriation, prompt and timely information sharing between various agencies and ministries of neighbouring countries are required on a regular basis.  For ensuring rehabilitation of the survivor’s; long term institutional support and linking them with the income generating activities are essential. Simultaneously, arranging gender sensitising awareness programmes for the families and concerned stakeholders should be emphasised for ensuring the proper acceptance of the survivor. At the same time, this is necessary to address the key aspects of gender discrimination and ensure that women are not marginalised in low paid labour market.

So for many victims like Champa, she will remain a statistic without a face but warmly remembered by her family, who are too ashamed to say something about her disappearance due to stigmatisation.


The writer is National Coordinator - Strategy, Innovation and Knowledge Management, World Vision Bangladesh