1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Layers of Silence: Links between Women's Vulnerability, Trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh, India and Nepal (Draft)



At the end of 2001 there were over 5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the South Asia region, according to UNAIDS estimates. Of these, nearly four million were living in India, where the number of new infections is expected to double every 14 months if appropriate actions are not urgently undertaken. Other countries of South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, also have rapidly growing epidemics. Gender, age and transmission via sex are key elements in the dramatic increase in the epidemic in the region. The fastest rate of new infections is in the age group 15-24, and the epidemic is expanding rapidly amongst women, many under 18 years of age.

An estimated 35 per cent of the HIV-positive people in the region are women and girls, and the numbers are growing as a result of their socio-economic, cultural and biological vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. This vulnerability is rooted in the limitations (imposed by socio-economic and cultural conditions) on the control that women have over their life circumstances and choices, including sexual circumstances. These same underlying factors also heighten the vulnerability of women and girls to being caught in the growing web of trafficking in the region, taking them into situations which remove the last vestiges of choice, violate their human dignity and security, and further increase the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS. This paper examines the underlying factors of the dual vulnerability of women and girls in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, both to trafficking and to HIV/AIDS, and the particular vulnerability to HIV/AIDS of those who are trafficked into prostitution.

Both trafficking and HIV/AIDS occur in South Asia in a climate of denial and silence at all levels. There is a prevailing silence about violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, and silence about their circumstances, including the abuse and exploitation they often face in their living and working environments in the process of earning a living. This silence manifests itself in a denial in families and communities and in society at large that trafficking of women and girls is taking place. At the same time, there is silence and unwillingness to acknowledge that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a major development challenge, and that HIV-positive people are in our midst in increasing numbers and need our care and concern, as well as protection of their rights. There is silence and lack of societal acknowledgement of behaviours that make people vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, and about sex itself, which makes it difficult to address HIV prevention or to talk about trafficking into prostitution. This silence is aiding and abetting the epidemic, allowing it to spread, and at the same time perpetuating trafficking.

Voices are being raised across the region to break these layers of silence, and initiatives are being taken to address both HIV/AIDS and trafficking. Women’s groups are raising their voices to protest violence against women. There is a People’s Forum, which addresses trafficking. The commitment from governments is reflected in the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating the Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, which has recently been signed. There are national programmes on HIV/AIDS, and government and civil society organizations are increasingly active in prevention and care and support. However, these voices are not being raised in unison. The effectiveness of responses will be maximized by combined efforts linked with wider programmes addressing the underlying issues of poverty, structural inequalities and women’s position in society.

Discussion and analysis in this paper are based on the cumulative field experience, information and data from five NGOs working to address trafficking and HIV/AIDS in South Asia. These NGOs are all partners of the UNDP HIV and Development Programme in South Asia, and have implemented pilot projects on the prevention of trafficking and HIV/AIDS, including rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation, with the active involvement of sex worker organizations. All the pilot projects collect and compile information from girls and women who have been trafficked, as well as from source areas.

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