Slavery no anachronism, the curse persists

Shihab Sarkar | Published: July 26, 2018 21:03:32 | Updated: July 27, 2018 21:47:13

Those who go out every morning in Dhaka to have a brisk walk may have noticed them. Some haggard-looking people are found squatting in rows on roadsides, a spade and a cane basket kept before each of them. These males, mostly rural migrants, eagerly await their temporary employers to choose them for work in the construction sector. In most cases, they are hired on daily basis. And the apparently younger and well-built males are picked normally. By 9:00 AM, the market is over, with those not hired leaving the venue dejected and in broken heart. This crude form of labour-hiring has long been a part of the capital's urban life. As expected, most of the city people have become inured to the spectacle.

Yet there are many among them who might detect the ghost of a weird trade in human labour in this unusual market. To say without euphemism, some might notice a distant shadow of slave trade of the past in the whole process of buying labour. It was nearly in this manner, African slaves used to be sold by their 'importers' in the open in different Western civilised countries. The Bengal region, Bangladesh in particular, has never been known to follow the slavery culture.

Recent findings, however, place Bangladesh among the countries where the streak of slavery of sorts is at play in an ominous way. It comes in the form of servitude. The Global Slavery Index 2018 calls it forced and 'state-imposed' labour. The condition of being in servitude involves those that trap girls and women in sexual service, make them victims of forced marriage thus forcing them to provide labour, compel children to work in clandestine factories on mostly false promises of salary, to name but a few. The report, prepared by Australia's Walk Free Foundation, covers a total of 167 countries. Bangladesh is positioned 92nd in the survey.

In spite of the country being safely distanced from the curse of slavery, the index presents a disturbing picture. As it observes, about 600,000 people in Bangladesh could be termed as having been sucked into modern slavery. Elaborating, it says 3.67 per 1,000 persons in the country are stuck in the conditions of modern slavery. In the context of Bangladesh and the other tradition-bound countries in South Asia, forced marriage is virtually a prime means of binding women in the chain of modern slavery. The scenario has been a common one in the rural areas of Bangladesh. Once married off and put under the tutelage of the husband and her in-laws, a bride loses her freedoms. In all her later life, the young woman or an adolescent girl is made to obliterate all her individual identities to remain under the care of her husband. If she happens to be the member of a joint family of her father-in-law, she has no role in decision making. As part the age-old norm, she cannot offer advices in family matters, even in the case of a big crisis. What's worse, nobody bothers to know about the views of a woman. The only role the average victims of forced marriage are made to play is one of a person born to do household chores in silence. In the poverty-hit families, married women are normally employed to strenuous menial jobs. Women looking after cattle and supervising post-harvest tasks are a common sight in the Bangladesh villages.

The modern slavery report quite scathingly notes, "Overall, the cultural practice of forced marriage places women at greater risk of exploitation, and the potential subjection to a life of servitude, financial bondage and sexual exploitation that comes with modern slavery."  According to the survey, a third, or 15 million, of victims of modern slavery are born of forced marriage, an issue that disproportionately affects women and girls. Viewing this predicament from a different perspective, married women in least developed countries in general are traditionally considered as a means of procreation. This is hard and plain truth.

No matter if one becomes a wife through formal and 'settled marriage' or enters the nuptial bond following romantic ties, the woman finally ends up being a pliant housewife, an all-enduring mother or one whose dreams and aspirations continue to be overshadowed by that of the husband. It's him, who has the last word in the family, and it's his diktats that prevail finally. Being a part of modern slavery, males ride the roughshod over the stands taken by the females in a family. The Walk Free Foundationreport rues the fact that even in the present day men, women and children all over the world remain victims of the so-called modern slavery. It spells out that they are bought and sold in public markets, forced to marry against their will and provide labour under the guise of marriage, forced to work inside clandestine factories on the promise of a salary that hardly materialises fully. When it comes to children, some countries have long been notorious for their record of cruel treatment meted out to them. Here the socio-economic subjugation emerges as the great culprit. Extreme forms of destitution make children vulnerable to being caught in the many traps of slavery.

Unlike in the past, especially with the cases of sub-Saharan African teenagers, the modern slave-children step into the dungeon voluntarily. A great irony is despite the presence of outlets for escape, scores of these hapless children prefer to remain 'in chain'. This chain is harsher than poverty. Social scientists would like to call it shackles, made up of deprivations and helplessness.

A similar ill fate haunts women. No matter how severe in nature the modern slavery is, educated women in Bangladesh can storm out of the husband-dominated family 'prisons'. But they won't. Like the children, they also discover themselves finally in a cage where they would like to stay put. Thanks to ingrained taboos and many social conventions, they finally submit to the dictates of the family. Slavery encroaches on them insidiously. The Walk Free Foundation came up with some startling facts. According to it, more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. They mostly live in Asia and Africa. A total of ten countries stand out with high prevalence of the scourge. On the other hand, a considerable number of people fallen victim to this unique slavery reside in a few high-income, developed countries. The persons under this category are in general migrant workers. On this count, the report observes, more than 400,000 people could be staying in the United States on being caught in the web of 'modern slavery'. These people reportedly work under forced labour conditions.

Slavery, a barbaric form of indignity shown towards the weaker and ignorant humans and their exploitation, has been abolished long ago. Buying humans is considered a grave offence in today's civilised world. Not to speak of treating a human being as one's purchased property, even a faint trace of slavery is now a grave offence. Likewise, employing people to gruelling work for longer hours than permissible prompts legal action in many countries. After its abolition, slavery eventually came to be recognised as a criminal offence. The region that witnessed the earliest abolition of slavery, in 7th century, was the Arab Peninsula. It was followed by Denmark in 1792, Spain in 1811, Sweden in 1813, Netherlands in 1814. France abolished slavery in 1817.  Slavery was institutionally abolished in the British Empire with the enactment of Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The law made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire.

Once infamous for its hideous and widespread slavery, the USA ended the scourge during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Since that period slavery has remained  there as an 'economic system'. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping.

The persecuted segments of mankind had to wait until 1948 to be assured of its due honour. It was in that year the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the Article-4, the charter emphatically says, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." The lofty aim of the world body in ensuring all humans a dignified and oppression-free status is eloquently expressed in the declaration. But the scourge of slavery has yet to be uprooted completely. The desire to exploit others ruthlessly still remains dormant in many people. Perhaps mankind cannot be fully cleansed of this trait.    









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