There is little doubt that there are long-standing and persisting threats that affect men and women around the world in vastly different ways. Though crime is a common and expected part of life in any country, the approaches to resolving incidents where crime occurs, and different types of crimes, varies according to the outlook and emphasis placed on it by state heads. In the United States, for example, much has been made about the decades-long increases in gun violence and mass shootings, with national leadership suggesting vastly different approaches to addressing and solving the issue. Unfortunately, there are also criminal issues that have received less attention over time despite being equally as harmful and sinister, and one of the most significant is that of human trafficking. Recognized as an international problem, human trafficking has claimed thousands of victims over the course of several decades, with a disproportionate number of these being women. Responses to human trafficking have been insufficient, both on individual state and global levels, and stopping or preventing it moving forward requires a deeper analysis of what causes it, why it persists, and how its impacts on women are particularly important.
In order to better understand the effects and dramatic scope of human trafficking, it is necessary to explore it first from a historical perspective. One of the most fundamental points to make about human trafficking is that the issue is in no way new. Though international attention has been brought to it in recent decades, the problem actually has roots in older practices of slavery that have existed around the world for centuries. Though officially, slavery was banned by most European countries and the United States that had them prior to the 20th century, the practice actually continued in some parts of the world past then. The disheartening truth about human trafficking is that this practice went overlooked for an extended period of time because it was built on the same foundation of past slavery, with some minor adjustments. Human trafficking is today recognized as having moved, “… from a master-slave relationship (i.e., legal ownership) to one where illegal control and forced labor are enforced” (Enrile, 2017, p. 11).
The roots that human trafficking has in the outlawed practice of slavery makes its range of victimization quite wide. Human trafficking has claimed as its victim's hundreds of thousands of people, and given that it is only slightly different from the once-legal version of slavery it is estimated that there are more slaves today than at any other point in history (Enrile, 2017, p. 10). Both men and women have been known to be abducted for the purpose of being trafficked, however, there is no denying that the overwhelming majority of victims are female. In fact, of the approximate, “…800,000 people trafficked across international borders annually and, of these, 80% are women or girls and 50% are minors” (Deshpande & Nour, 2013, p. 1). As part of their efforts to feed an insatiable criminal market, human traffickers regularly target the most vulnerable communities that they can find and commonly focus on countries where the legal systems in place struggle to identify and stop them.
A crucial point to consider about human trafficking is that the methods of abduction are incredibly subtle and regularly overlooked. In one instance, a former East African houseworker recalled being sent to the United States to work for their extended family and being paid only $70 a month despite working over 100 hours a week. Her inability to break free from their grasp was due to the fact that they had oversight on her daughters, for whom she feared there may be retribution (Lerner, 2010, para. 10). South Asia has been recognized for the employment of bonded labor, a system wherein a loan is requested from a landlord or business owner, after which the borrower is trapped in a cycle where they cannot pay it back and are forced into servitude across generations of a family (Vogelstein, 2018, para. 4). In some countries, such as Iraq, abduction can be much more violent, with reports of ISIS fighters destroying villages, eradicating families, and taking any remaining people hostage (Falk, 2019, para. 9).
One of the most prominent challenges with combatting human trafficking is that the problem is not limited to a single country or even region in the world. A report issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime investigated the response systems to human trafficking set in place by 155 countries. As of 2008, only 63% of these countries had passed laws against human trafficking, with many of these laws being limited in their scope (UNODC, 2009, p. 4). Despite this, the report found that of those with set laws in place, 91 countries, or 51%, had reports of incidents where human trafficking had occurred (UNODC, 2009, p. 5). As it stands now, there are very few countries that are exempt from either being concentrations for abductions or destination for trafficking victims. Though parts of Asia and Africa are regularly looked to as especially noteworthy, even the United States has been identified as a center for human trafficking.
The persistence of human trafficking has been driven primarily by the fact that there is a high demand for these victims. Common reasons for human trafficking have been identified as forced labor, the removal of organs, prostitution, and arranged marriages (Enrile, 2017, p. 12). Recent studies conducted by the United Nations have found that sexual exploitation is by far the most prevalent motivation for human trafficking, with an estimated 59% of all identified trafficking victims being exploited for this reason (Falk, 2019, para. 3). The demand for human capital, whether for sexual exploitation or otherwise, is so high that 2012 data suggested that the profits generated by the human trafficking industry on a global level were around or upwards of $32 billion annually (Enrile, 2017, p. 12).
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles that have been encountered in the fight against human trafficking has been the fact that any existing safeguards set in place to prevent it are fairly new. The aforementioned UNODC noted that less than 3/4 of the counties they covered in their report had any laws set in place to address human trafficking to any degree of 2008. The United States of America, one of the leading countries in the world and one of the only recognized global superpowers, did not introduce its Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act until the year 2000 (ATEST, 2017, p. 1). Since then, the U.S has made efforts to strengthen and refine this act by adding new provisions occasionally, but the relatively new introduction of these laws brings with it a demand for more time in order to properly implement them. Though the United States offers tremendous resources to international efforts looking to prevent and eliminate human trafficking, it is still lacking in many ways.
Countries like the United States and beyond offer national support that is valuable in the fight against human trafficking, but other organizations have also come together to fight the problem directly. In addition to the United Nations, which has conducted extensive and valuable research into the subject, organizations like 3Strands Global, Anti-Slavery International, Catholic Relief Services, ECPAT International, Free the Girls and more are now recognized leaders in the fight against this problem (CNN, 2018, para. 3). Interestingly, many of these organizations find workarounds for their limitations as non-combat actors and use their numbers to focus on spreading awareness through education and community outreach. They also lend support through reintegration efforts for trafficking victims who may find themselves isolated from the society that they once belonged to.
In many ways, the introduction of legislation and the formation of organizations to combat human trafficking can be seen as tremendous gains in the effort to eliminate the practice. However, despite the best efforts of these nations and groups, human trafficking has not been noticeably or meaningfully reduced in the last few decades. In fact, a 2017 classification considered human trafficking to be the fastest growing crime in the world, with estimates of victims in the range of nearly 21 million people (Couch, 2017, para. 6). The lack of meaningful reduction has not been due to a lack of effort or trying. Rather, as greater awareness is raised about human trafficking, and more emphasis is placed on addressing it, countries and organizations are finding new measures for identifying and classifying it. This is important for the equal protection of victims, the vast majority of whom are women, but the broader classifications unavoidably translate to increased numbers of people being victimized.
Reviewing the problem of human trafficking on a global scale cannot be properly done without an acknowledgment of the differences within how it affects men and women. Though the victimization of men is not to be underplayed, it is important to consider the way that women are uniquely affected by human trafficking and provide tailored considerations for that victimization. A feminist perspective is particularly valuable in these efforts, as the foundation of gender equality that acts as the basis for feminism can help bridge the gaps that regularly riddle anti-human trafficking efforts. Feminism, for example, establishes that although men and women are victimized for different reasons the conditions or factors that led them to be victimized might be far more similar than previously considered. Applying a feminist perspective of equality can help law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking groups to begin tackling the issue from a more focused direction, rather than seeking out strictly male versus female issues.
There is no doubt that feminist considerations can be incorporated into existing and emerging efforts to tackle human trafficking. One of the ways this can be accomplished is by looking at the paradoxes that exist in countries with high rates of gender equality, such as Iceland and Norway, versus those with low rates, such as Saudi Arabia, and the rates at which their education systems produce female graduates in STEM subjects. Saudi Arabian women have been found to make up 39% of STEM graduates in Saudi Arabia compared to only 35% and 26% in Iceland and Norway, respectively (O’Grady, 2018, para. 2). These rates are not indicative of an inability to perform, gender-based discrimination, or a traditional role model that steers them away from these areas. Rather, studies point to the correlation between relative rates of equality and the way that individual choices and interest factor into that. Women, in both cases, are dynamic enough to consider their circumstances and prospects for a future and are able to make informed decisions that are based on those prospects.
This method of thinking should not come as surprise, but in the context of human trafficking, it can be applied to understand how women are targeted and to develop intervention strategies. Victims of human trafficking are regularly divided into groups of men and women and are studied based on these divisions. Men are commonly found to be victims of human trafficking for forced labor, while women are found used for sexual exploitation. However, it is the intersection between both male and female motivations and pre-trafficking conditions that hold greater insights into how the practice of human trafficking is sustaining itself. Neither men nor women actively try to be taken as human trafficking victims, but many are pushed by the same conditions, such as devastating financial issues, psychological abuse, political instability, and more. The feminist approach would require organizations and groups to begin exploring human trafficking from this angle moving forward in order to develop strategies and laws that tackle the root of the issue rather than its endless presentations.
Given the aforementioned feminist considerations, there is no doubt that improvements can be made to current and emerging strategies aimed at eliminating human trafficking. Though great strides have been made to tackle the problem by implementing systems to report incidents where trafficking has occurred, it would be equally as beneficial to introduce systems that emphasize preventative measures over reactionary ones. Identifying the factors that can lead to human trafficking makes it possible for the introduction of support systems that are aimed at spotting situations that could potentially lead to abuse or manipulation. This would be similar to or in conjunction with existing psychological, emotional, or mental support systems that are already in place in schools, workplaces, and beyond. In doing so, people may feel more comfortable with seeking out help for situations that may otherwise lead to someone potentially involved in the trafficking industry taking advantage of their vulnerability. The overarching goal would be to prevent conditions that can lead to human trafficking where possible in order to allow law enforcement to focus on incidents of forced abduction and similar cases, which they can be better equipped to handle.
The exploration of human trafficking in the modern world reveals a number of issues that are shocking and concerning for all people. Regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or background, human trafficking is a reality that acts as a moral and ethical stain on all communities that participate in it. Ignoring the problem only contributes to its perpetuation, as do ineffective or limited laws and policies. In order to address it moving forward, human trafficking must be considered from a new perspective that allows for groups and collectives to tackle it both preemptively and proactively.
ATEST. (2017, January 11). Summary of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and reauthorizations FY 2017. Retrieved from https://endslaveryandtrafficking.org/summary-trafficking-victims-protection-act-tvpa-reauthorizations-fy-2017-2/
CNN. (2018, November 02). How to help: Anti-trafficking organizations around the world. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/05/world/anti-trafficking-organizations-around-the-world/index.html
Couch, R. (2017, December 6). Human trafficking is still globe's fastest-growing crime despite increased awareness. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/human-trafficking-increasing_n_6425864
Deshpande, N. A., & Nour, N. M. (2013). Sex trafficking of women and girls. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 6(1), e22–e27.
Enrile, A. V. (2017). Ending human trafficking and modern-day slavery: Freedom′s journey. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Falk, P. (2019, January 30). Human trafficking of girls in particular "on the rise," United Nations warns. CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/human-trafficking-girls-un-report-sexual-exploitation-primary-motivation/
Lerner, S. (2010, July 31). Human trafficking in the U.S.: One woman's story. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128873444
O'Grady, C. (2018, April 26). In tackling gender inequality in STEM, considerations of culture. Undark. Retrieved from https://undark.org/article/gender-inequality-stem-fields-culture/
UNODC. (2009, February). Global report on trafficking in persons (Rep.). Retrieved https://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/Executive_summary_english.pdf
Vogelstein, R. B. (2018, January 22). Human trafficking and slavery in the 21st century. CFR. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/blog/human-trafficking-and-slavery-21st-century