BLOG: Gender inequality and human trafficking, part 1.


Gender inequality in human trafficking – Part I: Why are women vulnerable?

by Carys Barry

Worldwide, the estimated number of females trafficked is 70% which far surpasses the number of men. The key reason for this is gender inequality that exists between men and women – in both the country the women are trafficked from and the destination country. To effectively combat trafficking we must understand how gender inequality relates to the vulnerability of women and implement policies that address this gendered dimension of human trafficking.

Ann and Rebecca’s Stories

The stories of Ann and Rebecca demonstrate how the vulnerabilities they have by virtue of their gender have been utilised to traffick these young women.

The first story is Ann’s story. Ann’s story starts in Nigeria, where her mother was a farmer but with so many children and no male support she sent her to foster parents to be educated. After her foster father died her Uncle Joseph said he would take her abroad with a friend Moses to be educated. Moses then took Ann to the airport; he kept all the documentation and told her to say he was his daughter. They flew to London where Moses put Ann in the back of a car with two strangers who attempted to have sex with her, when she refused Moses branded her and threatened her telling Ann that he had not brought her here for free and that she had ‘to do what I say or bad things will happen to you’. The next day Ann was raped by a man who had been paid to initiate Ann into sex slavery. She was then locked in the flat and could not escape. For the next three months about every two days she was taken from the flat and forced to have sex with other men. Luckily one of her customers Colin asked her how a girl so young could be in that industry and one day he gave her a coach ticket to Glasgow and directions to a refuge centre.

The second is Rebecca’s Story who opted into the Sumangali scheme. Sumangali, ‘means happily married woman’, it is a child labour scheme that is practised in the textile industry to lure young girls from 14 to 18 years old to work in the textile mill. Rebecca is a young girl from India from a poor background and when Rebecca’s family couldn’t afford food agents from the mill came and offered her food, accommodation and a salary for 8 hours work a day. They were told that Rebecca would be given her pay for a dowry so she could get married at the end. Rebecca’s parents agreed to the scheme and she went with the agents to the mill. However once she arrived at the mill, what she had been promised couldn’t have been further from the truth. She realised there was no safety at all at the mills despite her having to operate heavy machinery. On top of this she quickly became very ill from the stomach pains caused by the cotton fibres filling her stomach. Despite this she was not permitted to take days off or given medical attention. She worked 12 hour days with no breaks and very little pay compared to what was promised, with hardly any of the girls receiving their dowry at the end. She was sexually abused by her bosses who took a girl whenever they felt like it. Her sleeping conditions were very cramped with all of the girls packed into small rooms on the floor. Despite the conditions she could not leave as she had nowhere to go with no skills and no dowry to pay for a husband.

Why are women vulnerable?

Women are vulnerable in two ways. The first is on the supply side, or in the origin country. In many countries around the world gender inequality is caused by the gender discrimination that exists in that society’s consciousness. This social perception that women are inferior has become ingrained in many societies’ institutions and policies.

Supply side gender vulnerabilities

  1. Rights, freedoms and opportunities

The fact that women are less valued than men means that they are given less rights, freedom and social position. This position of second class citizen is perpetuated through the denial of access to education, healthcare and opportunity which creates a clear gulf between men and women.

  1. The gendered development process that reinforces gender roles.

Development strategies are being predicated on existing gender roles where women remain in the unpaid care economy. This has marginalized women from education and employment where women are left in a ‘poverty trap’ as they are not equipped with the skills needed to escape the poverty they were born into leading to feminised poverty. This and the denial of property rights have given women the position of “dependent” as they do not have the freedom or indeed the ability to support themselves. This puts the female at the mercy of her closest male relation that she depends on, making her vulnerable if he withdraws support, vulnerable to what he wills or dependent on low paid menial “women’s” jobs. This vulnerability is demonstrated when both Ann’s father and foster father died she was left without the protection she needed and was traded without due regard to her safety.

This gender inequality is reinforced by cyclical oppression which is the indoctrination from birth of the view that women can only work low-paid jobs by other women such as mothers. This generational bondage gives credence to patriarchal attitudes as it is confirmed by other women who were taught this. This instils them with an attitude of inferiority and further entraps them into “women’s” roles.

Rebecca’s story is an obvious example of a gendered development process which left her without the resources to earn a dowry when her family could not pay for it. She then opted into a scheme that capitalised on her vulnerability by making her a slave.

  1. Gendered cultural practices and discrimination.

The role of each gender creates a culture of son preference. This leads to daughters becoming a liability due to social expectations of women marrying well with a dowry paid for them. Therefore families may be willing to trade girls or marry them to strangers who do not demand a dowry with little thought to their wellbeing or rights making them extremely vulnerable to trafficking.

Rebecca’s story of forced labour has exploitative power on this basis that women’s sole purpose in life is to have enough money to pay the dowry for a husband. If we consider a more equal society like ours where dowrys do not exist and we are not condemned to poverty unless we earn enough to pay for a husband we would never consider sending our daughters to work in a factory. This happened to Rebecca because of an intricate web of lack of access to the rights and resources that provide men in India with independence that women cannot have.

  1. Migration

Migration leaves women without the protection of those they are dependent on and without the skills, education or resources to survive on their own. Why then do so many migrate?

Some women may be pushed to trafficking as an alternative to the danger and exploitation inherent in the traditional position of women in poor countries whose family expect long hours of domestic servitude. Alternatively they may be forced to migrate if displaced as a result of a catastrophe or to escape dysfunctional families, who are violent.

Ann’s story shows how women can be manipulated by men like Moses into migrating for a better future and then made to pay back their debt.

Gender vulnerabilities on the Demand Side

On the demand side the core assumption that women are inferior to some degree has led to demand for trafficking making them vulnerable. This has created an attitude in recipient countries that it is acceptable to prey on the vulnerable on the basis that women are second class citizens that can be traded.

  1. There has been a development of sectors with woman-specific demand, due to gendered perceptions of female skills, value and sexuality. In this way there is demand for women in “female” roles and in prostitution roles.

Both Ann’s and Rebecca’s story are examples of women being forced into male-defined “women’s” roles that are not filled voluntarily. Here there is a demand for women in a sexual capacity and working in clothing, the only other option that is given is a domestic role.

  1. Discriminatory sociocultural practices make women incredibly vulnerable to trafficking. For example the dowry system in India which persuades women to give away daughters for free, like Rebecca being forced into the Semangali scheme and the one child policy in China, which encourages buying brides.
  2. Impoverished political processes, such as poor leadership, can make trafficking low risk and high profit thus increasing the number of people doing it.

This is what has occurred in Rebecca’s Story. The Semagali scheme has been born out of trafficking being low risk and high profit.

  1. The objectification of women is reinforced daily through everyday sexism strengthening the idea that women can be used like commodities. One way that this idea is distributed to the masses is through the media where patriarchal views of women are injected into the public consciousness without most of us noticing.

Here it is important to note that although women in positions of poverty are most at risk, we must not make the mistake of thinking that women in western countries are not at risk. Although in wealthier countries we have equalised the gender imbalance on the supply side more than poorer countries, women can still become vulnerable because of the gender imbalance of demand. Women are still seen by some as commodities that can be used for sex. This objectification is ingrained into our social consciousness and perpetuated by the media. Indeed, here is Alisha’s story – a local example of someone trafficked for sexual exploitation in NI. In this way all women, from all backgrounds are more vulnerable than men to sex trafficking. This is why 98% of victims of sex trafficking are women.

Thus, women are vulnerable to human trafficking on the basis of their gender on both the supply and demand side. Patriarchal attitudes towards women are currently entrenched deep in our social consciousness; however as these are social constructs they can be transformed into equal respect, equal rights and empowerment. In Part two (posted this coming Friday), I shall discuss possible solutions to these gender issues in human trafficking.