Trafficking in Persons (TIP) is a highly gendered crime that affects women and men differently due to asymmetrical constructs of masculinity and femininity, deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, and the distinct cultural and social meanings prescribed to their bodies and identities. 

Rooted in patriarchal gender norms and the de-valorization of the feminine, women’s bodies are more likely to be used as vessels, resulting in a significantly higher vulnerability to human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. On November 25th 2023, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the United Nations Organisation on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), shared that more than 90% of the detected victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation are female. This aligns with UNODC’s Global Trafficking in Persons Report from 2022, recording that an astonishing 64% and an alarming 27% of all detected victims of trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation were women and girls. 

Men, on the other hand, in light of the deeply rooted association of masculinity with physical strength, are primarily trafficked for forced labour. The 2022 GLOTIP Report found that 56% of all detected victims of trafficking for forced labour are men and 12% boys, and that men are primarily exploited in the fishing, agriculture and construction industry. Whereas if women and girls are trafficked for forced labour they are most likely to be subjected to domestic servitude and street-selling. Studies have further shown that women suffer violence at the hands of traffickers, at a rate three times higher than men, and children at a rate two times higher than adults. 

The vulnerability of women and children, especially girls, is further elevated in the context of armed conflict. Women and girls who live in conflict environments are at a heightened risk of gender-based violence, which may be exercised in the form of trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and sexual enslavement. These crimes commonly form part of the systematic and strategic violence perpetrated against civilians to spread terror and fear, and shake the foundations of society. They are commonly but not exclusively perpetrated by extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, abducting women and girls from their homes in Nigeria and Somalia, and brutally subjecting them to forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and forced marriage. A particularly vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group, targeted by the Islamic State, are the Yazidis who are trafficked for sexual enslavement and exploitation between the Republic of Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic. 

Furthermore, that men also fall victim to sex trafficking and that deeply entrenched patriarchal norms come at a high cost for men, particularly those men who belong to other marginalised groups, is commonly side-lined. Research has shown that men are significantly less likely to self-identify as victims of trafficking due to taboos around discussing sexual violence enacted against men, feelings of humiliation, and fears of ostracization. They commonly see themselves as “victims of unfortunate circumstances rather than trafficking.” On the flipside, deeply internalised gender biases, present within institutions as a whole and relevant actors, hinder the identification of male trafficking victims. It seems that traditional understandings of masculinity, closely linked to strength, authority, and power, are incompatible with the status of a victim in need of assistance. 

In light of these trends, it is ever more important for national authorities and international organisations to take gender-sensitive, age-responsive, and trauma-informed approaches that, where possible, promote ethical survivor inclusion. 

One example pioneering the importance of gender-sensitive responses is the UNODC’s Women’s Network of Gender Champions against Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, a community of female criminal justice practitioners and male champions of women’s rights working in policing, law enforcement and the judiciary. Since its launch in 2020, it has served as an invaluable platform for engagement and exchange, tirelessly working to address the gendered nature of human trafficking and migrant smuggling, as well as the grave underrepresentation of women in the criminal justice sector. 

Network contributor Justice Ayesha Malik, has broken the glass ceiling and become the first woman to be sworn into the Supreme Court of Pakistan. In line with the Network´s aim to drive tangible measures for institutional reform, she proclaims “I’ve become a voice. I’m there to call out the discrimination, call out stereotyping, and bring out the gender perspective. I’m the voice that nudges, reminds, and suggests ways to improve ourselves and make our system more inclusive.”  She goes on to explain, “by being the voice, the objective has always been to help change the narrative, change the mindset, and make the vocabulary more inclusive. It’s not only about women, but it’s also about vulnerable people.”

In recent years there has been a push within the anti-trafficking movement to take a more victim-centred approach through improved national referral mechanisms, more sensitive evidence collection and investigation techniques, and the provision of support to victims through health mainstreaming and financial compensation. At the same time, there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of ethical survivor inclusion and survivor-led policy-making. It is increasingly recognized that survivors are essential partners in policy-making as they possess lived experiences that can improve anti-trafficking strategies and programmes. One example is the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC), which consists of 21 prominent human trafficking survivor leaders from across the OSCE region, and provides advice, guidance, and recommendations to OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), to inform its anti-trafficking policies, practices, and trainings. Nonetheless, survivor inclusion is highly complex, with an acute need to ensure that it is ethical, and trauma informed. 

Overarchingly there is an imperative need for policy-makers and criminal justice practitioners to take into account gender, as well as the lived experiences of victims and survivors. As María Dolores López Sánchez, Chief of the National Bureau for Human Rights and Gender Equality in the Spanish Policia Nacional and advisory board member of the Women’s Network points out, “diversity and inclusion are essential organisational pillars, that any institution aiming to address inequality must embrace.”

Written by Annkathrin Rest, Edited by Katharina Joó

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