The ILO estimates that at least 2.45 million trafficking victims are currently working in exploitative conditions worldwide, and that another 1.2 million are trafficked annually, both across and within national borders. Of these, up to 80% are women and girls according to the UN.
A widely-quoted UN estimate says that human trafficking and slavery is the third most lucrative illicit business in the world after arms and drug trafficking, although the UN doesn’t actually give any source for this claim. That could be because of the inherent difficulty in obtaining data on criminal activity or because the estimate includes other activities like taking money to smuggle illegal immigrants into a country. The US Department of State definition of trafficking is “all of the criminal conduct involved in forced labor and sex trafficking, essentially the conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service.”
Why does it still happen, and why are women the main victims? Economics, culture and tradition are all to blame.
Economically, you can look at it on the global or local level. Trafficking and the modern slave trade are driven by the same factors that encourage other aspects of globalisation such as increased mobility, cheaper travel and the ease of organising international networks. They are also reinforced by economic misery and absence or removal of social protection in countries opening up to the international economy, and the illusions engendered by images of a better life elsewhere on satellite television and other easily accessible mass media.
It sounds cynical, but you can also look at trafficking of women in terms of supply and demand factors, as the World Bank does here. For instance, on the demand side, employers want cheap labour, and not just in the sex industry. In 2004, the Council of Europe drew attention to the fact that domestic slaves are predominantly female and usually work in private households, starting out as migrant workers, au pairs or “mail-order brides”.
The supply of women and girls is maintained by poverty (some UN estimates say that nearly 70% of the world’s poor are women) and lack of opportunity. But social norms that consider women as inferior play a role too. Religion is one of these, and the World Bank report linked to above says that one of the factors pushing women into prostitution in the Mekong region is that under Theravada Buddhism, “women and girls are thought to be unable to achieve enlightenment. Thus, while men can show gratitude and respect to their parents by becoming monks and pursuing the spiritual life, many girls feel that they must make sacrifices for the benefit of their families, villages and their own karma.”
In addition, as this short guide published by the OECD points out, trafficking often emerges where many human rights violations are prevalent already. The most common violations are the right to personal autonomy, the right not to be held in slavery or servitude, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to be free from cruel or inhumane treatment, the right to safe and healthy working conditions and the freedom of movement. Governments can be guilty too, even towards people who have escaped from trafficking. Policies often give priority to detention, prosecution and expulsion of trafficked persons for offences related to their status, including violation of immigration laws, prostitution or begging. Victims may be treated as “disposable witnesses” whose sole value is their ability to assist in prosecuting traffickers.
What can be done?
The 2003 “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons” is the leading international instrument. It goes beyond trafficking for forced prostitution and takes into account other forms, including forced domestic work and commercial marriage. These aren’t just problems in developing countries. The slaves referred to by the Council of Europe were working in its member countries. Earlier this week, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit reported that a two-year-old girl was among the victims it helped last year.
The 2003 Protocol recommends that governments allow victims of trafficking to remain in the destination country, temporarily or permanently. Governments should also ensure their safety and protect their privacy and identity. It also recommends that governments establish legal measures to award victims compensation.
At national level, efforts in source countries to tackle poverty and lack of rights would strike at the root of the problem, but a number of measures can have more immediate impacts, such as awareness-raising campaigns, given that many victims are deceived into migrating. Given the importance of poverty in fuelling trafficking, funding to start small businesses could help women.
Destination countries can contribute to such programmes. They can also help victims by protecting them even if they are not prepared to help the authorities investigating the trafficking networks, and not deporting them back to the country they were trafficked from.
A Women’s Day Challenge, article on the educationtoday blog by Barbara Ischinger, OECD Director for Education and Skills
Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Regional conference to combat child trafficking