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Asia-Pacific Countries Combat Trafficking, Violence Against Women

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are stepping up efforts to combat human trafficking and violence against women.

Since the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, in 1979, dozens of Asian governments have ratified the convention and passed laws to protect women.

But experts from nine Asian governments meeting this week in Bangkok say much more needs to be done about enforcement.

Anne Gallagher, the manager of the Asian Regional Cooperation to Prevent People Trafficking, says ratification of CEDAW carries responsibilities for governments.

"The convention prohibits trafficking and requires countries to take certain steps towards eliminating trafficking," said Ms. Gallagher. "That means it is a legal obligation for countries to do this - it is not something that is just nice for them to do."

But despite new laws, trafficking is growing, experts say, because it is a major revenue earner for international organized crime.

"The indications all point to trafficking is increasing," added Ms. Gallagher. "There is more violence, we are seeing more victims, we are seeing greater specialization amongst the traffickers. We are seeing an increased involvement of organized criminal groups. I think its pretty clear the problem is getting worse. It is definitely not getting better."

The United Nations says about 250,000 women and children are trafficked annually in Southeast Asia out of more than 700,000 throughout the world. Most of the women, and many of the children, wind up in the sex trade.

Most Asian victims come from the poorest areas - Burma, Cambodia, China's southern Yunnan Province, the Philippines and Vietnam. Most are taken to wealthier countries in the area, such as Japan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.

Trafficking can cause social instability because trafficked women often cannot return to their home villages, and frequently end up with other problems, such as drug abuse.

Emmeline Verzosa, the executive director of a Philippine national commission on the role of women, says the government has been moving to address its obligations under CEDAW.

"We have developed a national strategic plan of action against trafficking in persons, this is a six-year plan. It covers prevention, protection, law enforcement and prosecution, rescue, repatriation, recovery and reintegration," said Ms. Verzosa.

The Philippines has also tightened laws to protect women from domestic abuse.

"The law also recognizes battered women's syndrome as a legal defense to women who have suffered accumulated abuse and have been driven to defend themselves," she added.

One problem in enforcing anti-trafficking laws in poor countries is that many law enforcement officers treat trafficked women as criminals.

Hameeda Hossain, a founder of a legal aid and human rights organization in Bangladesh, says her country is trying to change that.

"Bangladesh has a program in relation to training of law enforcement personnel, to make them more gender sensitive, how to deal with the victims of trafficking and to separate the victims from the traffickers, because there is a tendency to criminalize both the victim and the trafficker," explained Ms. Hossain.

But while experts praise efforts such as the Bangladesh program, they say changing old ways of thinking is harder than pushing through legislation, and ensuring greater equality for women and protecting them from violence remain distant goals.