Human Trafficking and Gender-Based Violence: Cause or Effect?

Sex trafficking has been thrust into the spotlight in the 21st century particularly in the context of media coverage and NGO awareness campaigns. Human trafficking is not only an issue in the developing world, but also in developed countries such as the United States. For the purpose of this blog I will utilise the term ‘sex trafficking’ in relation to human trafficking as one of the areas of human trafficking as defined by the UN Office on Drug and Crime, “Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (UNODC).

According to the Global Slavery Index, the current estimate of individuals enslaved is 45.8 million people. In the Asia Pacific area of the world, there are 30,435,300 individuals trapped in slavery (Global Slavery Index). Sexual exploitation is one of the leading forms of human trafficking and is extremely rampant amongst both adults and children but accurately estimating those numbers is a difficult task (Farr, 2006). What is most shocking, is that these are solely estimates as there are people that are unaccounted for.

The root causes of human trafficking can often be traced to poverty, inequality, and the impunity of perpetrators which is exacerbated by a lack of laws to support victims of trafficking. After incidences that make poor more vulnerable, such as natural disasters and war, human trafficking becomes more prevalent.

Gender-based violence is both a cause as well as an effect of human trafficking, more specifically sexual exploitation. When one thinks of human trafficking the physical aspects are frequently the most thought of such as violence to imprison, threaten, rape etc. Whilst these are very important to focus on, there are also other alarming psychological impacts of manipulation, deception, verbal abuse, isolation, and entrapment (Crawford, 2016). In terms of gender-based violence as a root cause of human trafficking, this must be addressed in order to overcome human trafficking on the larger scale. The causes of gender-based violence are rooted in societal norms and laws in which these crimes are perpetuated.

In order to address sex trafficking not only do the laws need to change, but also, the societal norms that uphold gender-based violence and reproduce the vulnerabilities that lead to human trafficking. The continuation of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are often rooted in hegemonic masculinity where gender power relations lead to an increasingly unequal gender hierarchy. In societies and cultures where women are considered the property of men, addressing sex trafficking is of little importance. To achieve gender equality, gender must be mainstreamed into societal norms and gender power relations must be addressed. Furthermore, appropriate, enforceable, and effective laws and regulations must be put in place to end impunity.

Lindsay Sparrow is the Associate Director of the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. She holds a MSc in Political Economy of Emerging Markets from King’s College London and a BSc in Policy, International Trade, and Development from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her recent work focuses on gender and social policies, in particular gender-based violence as well as gender and economic policies.

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