Missing, Kidnapped and Trafficked Children: Myth and Reality

Prof. Ishrat Shamim and Mohiuddin Ahmed

The appalling dimensions of violence against children has made the situation so vulnerable that the concept of human rights as well as ‘child rights’ appeared questionable to researchers, academics, development practitioners and human rights activists. If one opens a newspaper, web site, satellite and television, one always sees horrendous stories of the violence inflicted on children, each more terrible than the previous ones.

While addressing the issue, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, says, "Violence against women and girls - in our families, communities and societies is the most shameful of all human rights abuses.” He also urged the UN’s 185 member states to enact and enforce laws to create a world safe for women and girls.

Recent times have witnessed a surge in the interest on the issue of child lifting, kidnapping and trafficking in Bangladesh. Previously the basic rights of children were a negligible concern but the increasing abuse and the infringement of the same have triggered off a much-needed concern over it. Bangladesh is one of the first twenty-two country to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Children in 1990, enactment of The Children’s Act 1974 and adoption of The Children’s Rule 1976; National Policy for Children 1994 and the National Plan of Action for Children 1997-2002, November 1998. Moreover, Articles 15, 17, 27, 28 & 31 of the Bangladesh Constitution have laid down the general principles regarding the protection of children from all forms of discrimination and abuse. But sadly enough, even when we are on the verge of entering into the 21st Century, the rights of the children is rarely acknowledged in the society. Child abuses and discrimination continues to pervade the millions of children who are not adequately equipped to voice their needs.

The commoditization process of children globally and particularly in the South Asian countries have given rise in kidnapping and trafficking in children that has shaken the conscientious of the civil society. This is a grave violation of child rights as the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children agreed to declare at the World Summit on 30 September 1990 that “The children of the world are innocent, vulnerable and dependent. They are also curious, active and fun of hope. Their time should be shaped in harmony and co-operation. Their lives should mature, as they broaden their perspectives and gain new experience.” Therefore it is our responsibility to formulate coherent strategies to protect children from all forms of abuse or even to intervene in cases where the most blatant and extreme forms of child abuse like kidnapping and trafficking that persist in the society.

The issue of child kidnapping, sell and trafficking has recently gained considerable importance in Bangladesh. But it is impossible to determine accurately the number of victimised children. But it can be assumed that there are several hundreds of children under the age of 16 years who are being kidnapped, abducted and trafficked within the country and across borders. A joint study report prepared in 1996 by the Ministries of Home, Social Welfare and Women and Children Affairs shows that over the last five yews, at least 13,220 children have been smuggled out of the country (The Independent, December 25, 1996).

The term ‘missing’ denotes a process by which there is no trace or information about children and young girls who are the victims. They may either loose their way or contact with family members due to age or gender or they are kidnapped by agents or procurers. Many a times when a child is reported missing there is not enough evidence to determine whether he or she is the victim of foul play or just inadvertently or unavoidably detained and may only be categorised after determining what has happened to the child. For instance a child is found after wondering away from his or her parents in a shopping mall or a public place would be considered a missing child. In cases where a child is injured and cannot immediately obtain help, that child should also be considered missing until parents and or authorities can be notified of the child’s whereabouts.

On the other hand, ‘kidnapping’ of children include all forms of abduction and capture with the intent to demand ransom, sell, exchange or use in slavery, servitude, flesh trade, organ collection, prostitution and pornography by means of violence, threat of violence or using drugs.

Trafficking may be defined as, "All acts involved in kidnapping, abduction, capture, acquisition, recruitment and transportation of children and young girls within and across national borders with the intent to sell, exchange or use of any illegal purpose such as prostitution, servitude in the guise of marriage, bonded labour or sale of human by means of violence or threat of violence" (Ishrat Shamim, 1997). Trafficking is a new form of contemporary slavery, which is a grave violation of human rights. The contributing factors are poverty, the inferior status of poverty-stricken children the sexual abuse of girls, often by family members and the willingness of poor parents and guardians to let their children go to urban centres and neighbouring countries for economic benefits of the whole family, sometimes not knowing the grave consequences.

The continuous rise in the number of missing, kidnapped and trafficked children reported in the media over the past few years illustrates that children have become cheap commodities in the globalised market economy and testify negligence of government initiatives to address the grave situation that is prevailing.

News clippings compiled by the Centre for Women and Children Studies (CWCS) revealed that about 2,995 children, of whom 1,820 were boys and 1,175 were girls were missing from January 1990 to June 1998.

On the other hand, the total figure on kidnapped children was only 919, which is less than one-third of the total number of missing children during the same period. Among the kidnapped children, 587 were girls and the remaining 332 were boys. It is interesting to note that there are more boys missing than girls, in contrast to more girls being kidnapped than boys. Boys are more active the home like going to school, to market, to workplace, to visit friends, to play in public places, etc. In certain cases, young boys do not return home and are thus missing. Many a times, girls are forcibly kidnapped by mastans and sexually abused. However, the issue of boys being missing maybe cases of kidnapping or trafficking, which is hard to uncover unless those children are found and state the real incident of what happened.

Unfortunately of the 2,995 missing children, only 244 were rescued, which is only 8.14 percent. As for rescuing kidnapped children, the numbers were much higher; about 574 children were rescued out of 919 kidnapped cases, which is 62.46 percent. However, the relatively high percentage of rescue work can be misleading because print media usually publishes the cases which have been apprehended by the law enforcing agencies while crossing the borders or children rescued in police raids in brothels or houses where they are trapped by kidnappers or traffickers.

A total number of 3,273 children were trafficked, of whom 1,674 were boys and 1,599 were girls, a difference of only 75 cases. In the case of boys, overwhelming majorities were below the age of ten years, as most of the boys are trafficked to be used as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries. The rescued record of trafficked children indicates that police and public rescued both a considerable numbers of child victims. Of the total 3,273 trafficked cases 3,125 were rescued, which is as high as 95.48 percent. However, the high percentage of rescue operation is due to fact that media only document those incidents, which are filed in the police stations.

Of the mechanisms used by traffickers to entice children, allurement of work is the most frequently used means to convince children. Especially for young boys and girls, the most appealing is the opportunity of better work. Sometimes children are taken forcefully across the borders, while some are kidnapped and others are made senseless by using drugs.

We realised that while the police are part of the structure of the law, the special problem with missing, kidnapping and trafficking in children is the attitude and behaviour around the law, which are shared by the police, judiciary and members of the community.

Of course policemen, prosecutors, lawyers and judges are human beings equally influenced as others by the prevailing social values and relationships. Therefore, it is generally argued that unless social attitudes change, it is not possible to get better results despite the provisions in the laws and the Constitution. This is a vicious circle and there must be some beginning somewhere and where else can it be more legitimate and practical in the hearts and behaviour of the ‘actors’ of the legal system. Hence there is no alibi or excuse available to policemen for not behaving in a manner respectful to the rights of children.

The issue of missing, kidnapping and trafficking in children should be addressed with holistic approach. Community Policing and Neighbourhood Watch have become the most useful and successful device in addressing the issue of preventing crime against children in many developed and developing countries. The basic premise of Community Policing is that the police and the members of the community should work together to suppress crime in society. Moreover Community Policing enhances the service quality of the police where the police have become more sensitive to the specific needs of each neighbourhood.

Neighbourhood Watch scheme, on the other hand, keeps an eye out on anything or anyone suspicious in the Neighbourhood. As such it is useful in retarding the incidence of strangers coming in to kidnap or allure children to be trafficked. Such scheme encourages good relationship between the police and the community.

It is our realisation that introducing Community Policing approach or forming Neighbourhood Watch at community level would be useful in curbing such heinous acts against children. Furthermore, the crucial tool to fight against such crimes is increased police action by establishing special units to deal with missing, kidnapped and trafficked children which includes prompt action, proper implementation of the existing laws, and providing safe protection to the child victims rescued. In this regard police should be trained to be child-friendly in the best interests of children.

The authors are Professor of Sociology, DU & President, Centre for Women and Children Studies (CWCS) and Programme Officer, Centre for Women and Children Studies (CWCS) respectively.