HIV/AIDS in Pakistan
In 2004, an outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan caused a skyrocketing number of cases in the country. As of 2020, there are an estimated 180,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. However, the vast majority of HIV-registered Pakistanis are receiving treatment and local organizations are making progress to expand treatment to the most vulnerable and stop the progression of the outbreak altogether.

The HIV Outbreak in Pakistan

The 2004 HIV outbreak in the country followed a pattern common in Asian countries, in which the disease grows exponentially within networks of people who inject drugs, before reaching a plateau. Once the disease reaches a plateau, the disease begins to spread to the general population.

About 38% of Pakistani people who inject drugs are HIV positive as of 2017. The common practice of sharing and reusing needles and other drug-injection equipment can explain this. Needles contaminated with HIV-positive blood easily spread the virus among communities struggling with substance use disorder in Pakistan.

There is also an interesting local phenomenon in Pakistan where injection drug users are not able to inject their own drugs. Instead, these individuals utilize “street injectors” who inject the drugs for them. The injectors use a method of injection known as double-pumping, in which blood goes into the needle. As payment for their services, after injecting the individual, injectors keep a portion of the drug solution mixed with blood. The injector then pools it for their own use or for sale to others.

The Spread of HIV Throughout Pakistan

Through practices like these, HIV became extremely prevalent within this highly marginalized group. Once the percentage of HIV-infected injection drug users plateaued, the virus spread throughout Pakistan through bridging populations — people in close proximity to those in the high-risk group, such as the spouses of men who inject drugs. A study published in 2021 in the Harm Reduction journal estimated that, in Pakistan, 8.5% of female spouses of men who inject drugs are HIV positive.

Another population key to the progression of the outbreak is truck drivers. Many truck drivers frequently engage in purchasing sex, which puts them at higher risk of contracting HIV. Due to their mobility across the country, truck drivers who contract HIV/AIDS in Pakistan present a risk of a far-reaching and fast spread of the virus.

Progress and Solutions

Identifying at-risk populations and HIV-positive individuals is an important part of stemming the tide of an outbreak. However, the organization Nai Zindagi believes that society should not blame or stigmatize these individuals, but should help them instead. The organization started in 1989 as a small residential drug treatment center in Lahore, Pakistan.

Over the years Nai Zindagi shifted to focusing on street-based people who inject drugs across the whole of Pakistan and came to have a reputation for working with these populations. In 1999, UNAIDS and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime contracted Nai Zindagi to study “Hepatitis C and HIV among the growing numbers of street-based persons injecting drugs in Lahore.” Through the study, Nai Zindagi became aware of the increasing use of drugs via injections. At the time, the study noted no positive cases of HIV, but it was clear that HIV would spread rapidly once the first case came about within this group. This created a shift in the organization’s response to drug use, with a new emphasis on harm reduction, including reducing the spread of HIV.

Nai Zindagi’s Services

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to address an HIV outbreak, a country must diagnose, treat, prevent and respond quickly to each case of the disease. Nai Zindagi provides services in each of these aspects, focusing on marginalized, impoverished people who use drugs and those close to them, such as spouses.

Nai Zindagi specializes in assisting street-based individuals, utilizing mobile treatment vans and testing machines to accommodate those who are experiencing homelessness in Pakistan. The organization provides testing services, counseling, treatment and referrals to clinics that specialize in HIV/AIDS in Pakistan.

It also provides outreach services and training to spread the word about dangerous behaviors such as the use of used or dirty needles. Nai Zindagi even provides syringe exchange services, with the aim of distributing clean needles to those most at risk of contracting HIV. Harm reduction services like these are clinically proven to reduce the risk of diseases spread through injectable drugs.

With the work of organizations like Nai Zindagi, those at risk of HIV are less likely to contract it and those living with HIV/AIDS in Pakistan will have access to treatment that lengthens and improves their lives.

– Grace Ramsey
Photo: Flickr

Marvel's Black WidowMany years since her first appearance in the cinematic universe, Natasha Romanoff or Marvel’s Black Widow, made her solo debut in the film “Black Widow.” The film debuted in theaters and on Disney+ on July 9, 2021, a groundbreaking film featuring a prominent ensemble of superwomen. However, the film is stirring the most conversation due to its powerful opening credit sequence.

The scene presents a series of video clips, images and allusions meant to represent the sexual and labor exploitation of women across the globe. More specifically, the opening credit sequence and the movie as a whole point to the fate of trafficked children.

This theme of human trafficking pivots off of Black Widow’s superhero backstory, in which the fictional underground Soviet agency known as the Red Room trafficked Natasha as a young girl. The organization abducted young girls across Eastern Europe and indoctrinated and exploited the girls to do the organization’s bidding.

The Importance of the Opening Credit Sequence

In the opening credit sequence, the audience sees the camera focus on the terrified faces of young girls lined up after traffickers kidnapped them. The opening credits also showcase ominous audio of screaming girls playing in the background of a young Natasha being separated from her younger sister Yelena and subsequent clips show older men manipulating and touching the girls.

Following the scenes, images of forced labor and indoctrination emerge, all of which are too common in the world, not just in Black Widow’s universe. The images and videos culminate in a line spoken near the end of the film by the leader of the Red Room. A man named Dreykov states that the Red Room “[uses] the only natural resource that the world has too much of, girls.”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one in three females who are trafficking victims globally are children. The production team behind “Black Widow” was keenly aware of this statistic and wanted to make their movie more impactful. “Black Widow” director, Cate Shortland, intended for themes of human trafficking to come through the film.

Shortland wanted to “intersect [Marvel] with reality,” as the trafficking that defines Natasha Romanoff is based on real events that happen to thousands of young girls every year. Shortland felt that to ignore the blatant trafficking schemes of the Red Room and the atrocities that young girls similar to Natasha faced, notably forced hysterectomies, would be out-of-touch and a disservice to the impact that the film could make on audiences globally.

Human Trafficking in Russia

Russia, the location of the Red Room, comprises human trafficking for the purpose of labor and sex. This fact is on display in the film as there are numerous references to Russian culture and constant use of the Russian language throughout. As a Tier 3 country, the United States Department of State has reported that Russia has made little to no effort to combat trafficking. For example, the Russian government only investigated six trafficking or slavery cases between 2019 and 2020.

The Importance and Impact of Recognition

The UNODC has stressed that any form of awareness that one can cultivate and spread about human trafficking and gender-based violence is essential to alleviating the burdens of victims and preventing trafficking in the future. Marvel’s “Black Widow” raises awareness through the three-minute-long opening credit sequence. Meanwhile, Shortland and the rest of the cast and crew advocate for the forgotten women and those who are victims of violence and exploitation, similar to Marvel’s Black Widow, Natasha herself. Shortland then ends the film with Natasha and Yelena releasing the remaining women and girls from the Red Room in an empowering scene where the women are finally free from their abuse.

– Rebecca Fontana
Photo: Flickr

The Fight for Freedom: Most Common Types of Human TraffickingThe prevalence of human trafficking is a present-day example of the existence of slavery. This global human rights issue is a billion-dollar crime industry, affecting millions of individuals in almost every nation in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion… for the purpose of exploitation.”

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a form of exploitation that has three elements: the act, the means and the purpose. The act refers to the transfer or recruitment of persons. The means is how trafficking is done, which includes the threat, force or deception used to control victims. The purpose of exploitation includes sex, labor, slavery or the removal of organs. According to the Human Rights Commission, the most common types of human trafficking are sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage.

Common Types of Human Trafficking

Sex trafficking refers to the forced participation of commercial sex acts; women and children are the most vulnerable to this type of human trafficking. This type of trafficking forms a significant portion of the transnational present-day slavery. The commercial sex trade exploits one million children a year. Women and young girls make up 80 percent of the trafficked victims.

Forced labor, or involuntary servitude, is where individuals provide labor through coercion, force or fraudulent means. According to the 2017 Estimates of Modern Slavery, there are 24.9 million victims of forced labor. Millions of enslaved individuals worldwide produce goods in various supply chains under violence and threat. These include the agricultural, mineral, construction and textile industries.

Debt bondage is also one of the most common types of human trafficking in which a person forcibly works in order to pay a debt. Migrant laborers are particularly vulnerable to this form of trafficking, as many regions have systematic schemes designed to exploit workers. Debt bondage involves a debt that cannot be paid off within a reasonable time frame. Also known as debt slavery, the period of debt strips the victim of basic freedom. A cycle of debt is then created and maintained through the abuse of contracts, increasing debt interest, increasing living expenses and higher labor expectations.

Response to the Most Common Types of Human Trafficking

Despite the large number of individuals that have fallen victim to human trafficking, there are many organizations that dedicate their efforts to address human trafficking issues. UNODC has established a comprehensive approach to tackle human trafficking. The strategy can be best viewed as three interdependent components which include: raising awareness, capacity building and maintaining strong partnerships.

Additionally, Polaris is a leading organization committed to the worldwide battle to end modern slavery. The organization’s model places an emphasis on the victims of human trafficking. Polaris provides assistance in the restoration of the victim’s freedom, helping survivors reintegrate back into society.

In other parts of the world, nonprofits continue to investigate core issues, such as the conditions that increase the vulnerability to human trafficking. The Freedom Project is an Australian movement that seeks to empower communities and focus on the prevention of human trafficking.

In response to these alarming human trafficking statistics, global movements dedicated to the eradication of modern slavery are leading the way to freedom.

– Dane de Leon

Photo: Flickr