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Repatriating Women and Power: Pakistan’s Golden Opportunity

Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in the year 2023. Read more about the special series here.

The recovery of trafficked “brides” is no longer restricted to individual investigators such as Saleem Iqbal. Since 2018, Pakistani families have sold their daughters to Chinese men as brides, often against their will or through false promises of a better life. The issue was largely ignored by Pakistan’s pro-China government, with individual investigators conducting recovery and advocacy efforts, which included the compilation of an internationally distributed list of 629 trafficked brides in June 2019. In the five years since, trafficking has steadily increased and includes large numbers of poor and middle class Muslim women, while the original victims largely hailed from poor, Christian communities. With this demographic shift and uptick in numbers, the issue can no longer be ignored. Workers, activists, lawyers, and celebrities have taken to the streets of Lahore and Islamabad in mass protest. India, Pakistan’s longtime foe, has complicated the matter by extending its controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to include Muslim women. 

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Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government should respond to this human rights issue by relaxing media constraints, funding and empowering the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and demanding cooperation from China’s government when conducting repatriation efforts. The benefits are manifold: Pakistan will be in the moral right, leading to enhanced soft power; civil society will be appeased and likely view Khan favorably during an election year; India’s foray into Pakistan’s domestic politics will be countered; and Pakistan will challenge charges of hypocrisy by taking a stance against China’s mistreatment of Muslims. 

The female infanticide and gender-based abortions accompanying China’s One-Child Policy have left the country with 34 million more men than women. These men often satisfy their marital desires by taking foreign brides from countries like Pakistan. According to FIA officials, many brides undergo forced fertility treatments, encounter sexual, psychological, and physical abuse, and are forced into prostitution. Most are trapped in China, their passports taken and/or destroyed. The issue has gone largely unaddressed because of media suppression and disempowerment of the FIA. A friendly relationship with China is essential to Pakistan as it benefits from shared economic and defense interests.  

How important is this alliance when Khan’s own election prospects are threatened? Pakistan’s general election is in August 2023: six months from now. Prior to the protests, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) faced pushback for its inability to stifle terrorism and reform the economy. This pushback has snowballed into historically low approval ratings now that the public is aware of the trafficked brides. Human Rights Watch statistics place the number of trafficked brides at 7,500. Rafia, a protester, stressed: “We hear of women being trafficked to China all the time. The government has to change. No amount of foreign aid should come at the expense of our women!”  

As the election approaches and the PTI’s approval rating plummets, Khan’s government must actively address the issue despite its alliance with China. It can begin by relaxing its restrictions on the media. Since 2018, the government has intimidated journalists, pulled reports from airing, and denied media entry into high profile meetings with Chinese officials. Most Pakistanis, as alluded to in Rafia’s comments, learned of the trafficking through word of mouth. Unrestrained, the media could capitalize on current protests by covering the issue in-depth, conducting and publishing investigative journalism, and questioning Pakistani and Chinese officials. 

In addition to increased media coverage, Pakistan must give its FIA teeth. Since the trafficking began, the government restricted FIA’s power: officials were reassigned or dissuaded from pursuing the matter. This failure must be reversed by assigning more officials to these cases and funneling money into the efficient recovery of victims. Greater cooperation between the FIA and the Bureau of Emigration & Overseas Employment should also be encouraged.  

Pakistan’s most important task is its most daunting. In order to stand up to its all-weather ally, Pakistan must demand cooperation between both countries’ law enforcement. This would include collaboration when safely returning women to Pakistan and bringing court cases against all people involved, including the women’s families, middlemen, religious leaders, and Chinese “grooms”.  

The Khan government will likely bristle at this approach given its dependence on Chinese aid; however, by addressing one uncomfortable issue with a friend, Pakistan can strike a blow to its ultimate foe, India. On February 5, India extended its CAA (which notoriously excluded Muslims) to include Muslim women married against their will. It also claimed that it would—unlike Pakistan—speak on behalf of these women at the United Nations. This seemingly altruistic move was indeed calculated, intended to further destabilize the Khan government as protests rocked the country. Khan’s government could counter this move by recovering the trafficked women, removing the reasoning on which India predicated its CAA change.  

Ultimately, the repatriation of women sold into marriage is a moral imperative. Fortunately for Khan and his PTI, morality can be politically advantageous. By giving more power to the media and FIA as well as directly calling on China to assist in the repatriation of these women, the PTI can improve its chances of reelection, strengthen Pakistan’s global image, counter India’s intrusion, and lobby on behalf of Muslims mistreated by China. 


Mercedes Yanora

Mercedes works for a higher education non-profit. She has a BA in History with a minor in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University as well as an MA in South Asia Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Apart from editing for Charged Affairs, Mercedes enjoys researching and writing on South Asian society and foreign policy issues.

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