Notes from the Field

From Afghanistan: Radio Campaign Fights Trafficking Crisis

June 17, 2009

Ara called in to Radio Zorha in Kunduz Province, imploring her fellow Afghans to be aware of the dangers of being tricked by promises of a better life through employment opportunities in foreign countries. Upon hearing radio messages about human trafficking, she wanted others to hear the story of her 16-year-old son who had left with a group of friends to find work in Iran, and hasn’t been heard from since. Had Ara heard about human trafficking earlier, she would have counseled her son to make different decisions.

Sadly, Ara is not alone as she awaits news of her son. The outpouring of personal stories and cautionary tales from radio listeners across Afghanistan who have heard the Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ radio campaign on human trafficking is an indication that the problem is as vast as it is complicated. Many listeners have called in to express concern about issues ranging from the kidnapping of women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation, to drug cartels deceiving illegal immigrants into unknowingly smuggling drugs to Iran.

While the details differ, a handful of common threads run through these stories, forming a shared narrative that is rooted in poverty, illiteracy, and hope for a brighter future. Roughly 50 percent of Afghans are living below the poverty line, and that number is substantially higher for female-headed households. Almost 40 percent of adults are unemployed, and over 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Moreover, Afghanistan has one of the largest child populations – and the smallest proportion of working age populations – in the world, with approximately half of the population under the age of 18. A staggering 57 percent of men between the ages of 15 and 49 are illiterate, and that figure rises to a dismal 86 percent among women. Meanwhile, gender-based violence – including child marriage, domestic violence, sexual harassment, forced prostitution, and so-called “honor killings” – remains pervasive in Afghan society, both in the public and private spheres of life.

These factors create an environment ripe for human trafficking, a term which refers to the transport and trade in human beings for the purpose of exploitation. Few Afghans have the money to acquire official travel documents and permits. But, with families to support and few economic opportunities at home, they fall prey to the ploys of human traffickers designed to trick, coerce, and win the confidence of potential victims. Often they are taken across borders via dangerous routes through inhospitable terrain to Iran, Pakistan, and beyond. In addition to risking their lives, the victims are forced to pay large sums of money as payment for transportation and other expenditures, and are then promised employment, education, and even marriage opportunities in return. Family resources, already meager, are depleted, pushing them into situations of debt. Worse, traffickers sometimes extort additional sums of money from the victim’s family by threatening the life of the victim. Once in the hands of the traffickers, victims have little control over where they are taken and for what purpose – and they often end up in exploitative situations from which they cannot escape. Additionally, children are trafficked within the country to work as beggars or as bonded labor in the brick kiln and carpet-making industries. And women and girls are kidnapped or sold for forced marriages and prostitution.

Stemming the tide of labor migration is neither possible nor desirable; the priority must therefore be to arm citizens with the knowledge and skills to migrate safely. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ radio campaign conveys critical information on human trafficking to thousands of people in remote provinces of Afghanistan, through radio dramas and call-in programs built around such slogans as, “Your journey could begin with a dream – but, the dreams and promises could quickly turn to lies!” These local-language radio spots have elicited strong responses from local communities, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is planning to expand the public information and awareness activities under the campaign to also include listeners’ stories to respond to the high demand for further coverage of trafficking issues. Campaign slogans are also displayed prominently on billboards in border provinces, admonishing literate travelers to protect themselves and others from potential exploitation.

Many listeners have already used their newfound knowledge to educate their friends and families about safe migration and human trafficking, and some have even convinced their loved ones to reconsider risky plans to migrate through illegal means.

The campaign on trafficking in persons in Afghanistan implemented by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs project is clearly alerting the Afghan population that human trafficking exists and is mobilizing people to stop it.

Mumtaza Abdurazzakova is The Asia Foundation’s Director for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Initiatives to Strengthen Policy and Advocacy (MISPA)project in Afghanistan. Kate Francis is the Foundation’s Deputy Director of the Women’s Empowerment Program based in Washington, D.C. They can be reached at mabdurazzakova@asiafound.org and kfrancis@asiafound-dc.org, respectively. All names below have been changed.

View all posts by Kate Francis

View all posts by Mumtaza Abdurazzakova

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