Global March

From Practice to Policy: A Paradigm Shift in Human Trafficking

Forced labour, slavery and trafficking in human beings are not distinct practices any more. In March 2007 the UNODC along with other UN agencies and the NGOs launched the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking with a very strong emphasis on forced and bonded labour. Similarly, in one of most important documents on human trafficking, the US State Departments’ Trafficking in Persons Report 2007 has prominently defined and elaborated the interlinkages between forced labour and trafficking of human beings. This is the seventh consecutive report based on in-depth country-wise investigation trying to set parameters and grading. The first five reports focussed primarily on the area of sexual exploitation, understandably so as it is also the most commonly perceived notion of trafficking. It is, thus, important and interesting to uncover the gradual shift in the policy perception of trafficking towards inclusion of all forms as defined in the Palermo Protocol, including forced labour.

The history of civil society efforts to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery like trafficking is not very old. One of the most widely acknowledged initiatives against slavery began in India in 1980 under the leadership of Kailash Satyarthi and a few of his colleagues. The incident that triggered national and international attention against child slavery began with the rescue of 14-year-old girl Sabo and her family by this group in 1980. This episode was exposed with shock as a case of human bondage and slavery in the modern-day society. Though not understood at that time and probably more important was the recognition that the slave families liberated were essentially victims of trafficking. Sabo’s parents were trafficked before her birth from their village in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh to work in a brick kiln of Sarhind, Punjab 700 km away as bonded labourers.

This resulted in the popular peoples’ movement against contemporary slavery known as Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA -Save the Childhood Movement). BBA has liberated over 75,000 bonded and child labourers since its inception in 1980. Over 90 per cent of these are also victims of trafficking. For example, more than 95 per cent of bonded child labourers in carpet industry in Uttar Pradesh are trafficked from Bihar and Nepal. So is the case of stone quarries, brick kilns, zari -, jewellery -, plastic industry, roadside restaurant, domestic work, etc.

In late 80s and early 90s, parallel and independent from this, a number of other civil society efforts were launched against forced labour in Brazil, Mauritania, Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Pakistan, Nepal and Philippines, etc. Forced labour and child labour until 90s was addressed through individual NGO effort and not through any large coalition of NGOs in a coordinated manner. Further, trafficking was not in the radar of these anti-slavery activities.

Distinct to these, some NGO initiatives emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, West Africa, South East Asia and Central America in 1990s, which focused only on the commercial sexual aspect of trafficking, completely ignoring the forced labour dimension. One of the largest anti-trafficking networks worldwide is the ECPAT, which was formed in early-90s as a network dedicated towards ending child prostitution and trafficking of children for sexual purposes. The extent of the trafficking interventions were mostly confined to prostitution, that trafficking was considered synonymous with commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women. So much so that forced labour and slavery components of trafficking was completely overshadowed.

When the first international legislation on worst forms of child labour was in formative stages in 1998-99, number of governments and other constituents of International Labour Organisation (ILO) were apprehensive as to why trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour and servitude, and child prostitution should be brought under the broad definition of the worst forms of child labour. All these phenomena were being looked upon and understood as distinct concerns with no overlap. The worldwide mass movement, Global March Against Child Labour, played a significant role in harmonising the debate and discussions on this. It was for the first time during this march across 103 countries participated by 7.2 million people that the NGOs working in their distinct areas came under a single umbrella. This resulted unanimous adoption of ILO Convention 182 on worst forms of child labour, encompassing all forms of forced labour and trafficking. Unfortunately, despite its fast ratification, the integrated efforts to address these issues have not been translated in its implementation by most countries. There are few examples like Togo, Costa Rica, Philippines, Kenya and Macedonia, where significant efforts are being tried out though these are never reflected at the policy level.

The first strong peoples’ action for inter-linkages between forced labour and trafficking again came from India. The Indian circus industry was neglected sector, when BBA took the massive task of eradicate child labour from the Indian circuses within the framework of cross-border trafficking. During the course of the primary survey, it was found that majority of the children were Nepalese girls trafficked into circuses in India. Shockingly, neither these children nor the circuses were covered in majority of the anti-child labour laws or the anti-trafficking law of the country, though they were simultaneously victims of forced labour, slavery and cross-border trafficking. During a rescue operation in June 2004 to liberate the girls from Great Roman Circus performing in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, the circus manager and goons attacked the BBA rescue team. The attack on Kailash Satyarthi, parents of the trafficking victims and the team was telecast live on the TV channels and the issue was picked up by the international media, activists, the US State Department and the civil society. This was the turning point in the global discourse on trafficking in the light of forced labour.  

Since then, BBA has been engaging in concerted efforts at all levels of policy interventions to highlight the issue of trafficking for forced labour. Through the rescue operations in India, BBA has conclusively established that majority of child trafficking takes for the purpose of forced labour, while only a small percentage of it is for the sole purpose of commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women.

In early 2007, the largest initiative of its kind in the world against trafficking was launched by the BBA and Global March with their partner organisations in India, Nepal and Bangladesh in the form of the month-long South Asian March Against Child Trafficking across the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh border areas. The march had the dual purpose of elevating the inter-linkages between forced labour and trafficking to the highest policy arena as well as generating awareness on the concern among the masses. The voice of the march reverberated in the Indian Parliament and South Asian policy discussions during the SAARC summit in April 2007.

All these clearly mark the shift in understanding the ‘human trafficking paradigm’ in its totality and myriad manifestations. This takes us a step closer towards a consistent conceptual clarity of the problem of human trafficking, paving a path for those who work for its abolition in a concerted and coordinated manner.


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