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Pakistan’s slave trade
Afghan refugees sold into prostitution; indentured servitude flourishes; scenes from a slave auction

JAMRUD, PAKISTAN — The world is watching. America’s intervention in Afghanistan has not only provided Pakistan with a rare opportunity to court the world’s only superpower, it has also exposed Pakistan to the scrutiny of the Western press. This, at precisely the moment when General Pervez Musharraf, who became president only in June 2001, is struggling to cultivate democratic culture in a country still reeling from the reforms of General Zia ul-Haq in the late 1970s. By any measure, Musharraf has a long road ahead.

Precious few Americans know anything about the history of Pakistan, much less that ul-Haq’s reforms consolidated conservative Islam’s stranglehold on the national imagination. Fewer still know that, in the process of imposing Islamic law on the land, he created a culture of servitude for the poor. Among other things, ul-Haq’s cultural reforms supported the creation of madrassas, religious secondary schools that instill Islamic fundamentalist values among the poorer classes — and that ultimately led to the creation of the Taliban. Not only did the madrassas teach that women must serve their husbands, but that children should serve their elders. In many cases, the service of young Pakistani boys to their elders also includes the provision of sexual favors.

Servitude exists in many forms in Pakistan. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghan families — eager to flee 20 years of war and three years of drought — have sought safe haven in Pakistan, only to spend the rest of their lives working to pay off the debts they accumulated to get there. They do so by becoming indentured laborers, often at brick factories, and by sending their children to carpet factories that crave small fingers. Indentured servitude is not only legal but ubiquitous in Pakistan, and servant culture thrives: the wealthy can have a driver, three maids, a cook, and a night watchman for less than $75 a month.

And then there are the slaves. Many Afghan families cross into Pakistan through the lawless tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It’s a harsh climate, and they have no contacts, no food, and no money, which leaves them wide open to the predations of slavers. Pakistan’s tribal areas — there are seven in the NWFP and several autonomous cities — are the last vestiges of the British Raj’s failure to conquer Afghanistan. A series of agreements ("treaties" is perhaps too strong a word) includes the tribal areas as part of Pakistan, but confirm their complete autonomy from Pakistani law. The political culture, dominated by councils of fiercely independent tribal elders, hasn’t really changed in over 600 years — only now every house has several machine guns, and most have electricity.

Thus, though slavery is technically illegal in Pakistan, the laws are rarely enforced. And since Afghans have no legal status and no papers, there is little to connect them to the protections of the state, even when they serve as slaves in the cities and settled areas. In fact, there is so little work and so much unemployment that many are simply happy to have a job — no matter how dangerous or poorly paid. Though government figures put the unemployment rate at 37 percent, in reality poor census reporting and a lackluster bureaucracy probably conceal a much higher figure; in the NWFP some experts put joblessness at close to 45 percent. Deep unemployment, combined with poor or no public education, creates a culture of servitude where no one has means and even the relatively well-off will do almost anything for money.

Men often wait for families at the border crossings with ready cash and assistance. In exchange for $80 to $100 given to the families under the guise of a contribution to a young girl’s dowry or an advance on a small boy’s wages, Afghan families will send their children off with the wealthy Pakistanis — the sale of children whom families cannot feed is initially concealed under societal semantics and euphemism.

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Issue Date: February 14 - 21, 2002
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