Gender Equality

Trafficking in Human Misery

Although slavery has been formally abolished from the world, the trade in human misery continues. Women, still considered property in some places, may be sold into marriage. Men or women may be coerced into working in brothels, sweatshops, construction sites and fields. As illegal migrant workers, they may be subjected to sexual violence, horrific living conditions, threats against their families and dangerous workplaces.

Because of their subordinate position, women and girls are most vulnerable. In view of the clear link between trafficking and the violation reproductive health and rights, UNFPA is working to draw attention to and address the problem. Trafficking in women and girls was the topic of an international workshop in Bratislava organized by UNFPA in October 2002. More than 60 parliamentarians, government officials and NGO representatives from 25 countries attested to the detrimental effects of trafficking on their populations and agreed that its elimination should be a matter of national policy. However, eliminating this widespread and clandestine activity, which often involves organized crime and political corruption, will require collaborative efforts, with participation from international organizations, governments, NGOs and communities.

Defining trafficking

In a protocol supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, trafficking has been defined 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."

The dimensions of the problem

Statistics about trafficking are unreliable for a number of reasons, including the clandestine nature of the activity. However, rough estimates suggest that between 700,000 and 2 million women are trafficked across international borders annually. Adding domestic trafficking would bring the total much higher, to perhaps 4 million persons per year.

Human trafficking has become a global business generating huge profits for traffickers. New trafficking routes are regularly established and the market for fraudulent travel documents, clandestine transportation and border crossing has become increasingly well-organized.

Some victims are lured into subjugation by advertisements for good jobs. Others are sold into service by a relative, acquaintance or family friend. Traffickers target poor communities, and may show up during a drought or before the harvest, when food is scarce, to persuade poor families to sell their daughters for small amounts of money.

The problem is widespread. Although the greatest volume of trafficking occurs in Asia, it also exists in Africa and Latin America. Recently, the European Commission raised concerns about a growing 'slave trade' in Eastern European women -- some 500,000 may have been forced into commercial sex. As many as 50,000 women and children are brought to the United States under false pretences each year and forced to work as prostitutes, abused labourers or servants, according to a report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Few cases are prosecuted.

Trafficked migrants are vulnerable because of their irregular legal status, and may face deportation. They often cannot access legal assistance and medical care, and remain dependent on their agents and employers. Trafficking may also occur within countries, however, often spurred by commercial demand for young women in the sex trade.

Causes and solutions

Poverty and inequity are root causes of trafficking. Gender discrimination within the family and the community, as well as a tolerance of violence against women and children, also come into play. Lack of appropriate legislation and political will to address the problem, restrictive immigration policies, globalization of the sex industry, and the involvement of transnational organized criminal networks are other causal factors.

Governments and the international community have been responding to the growing incidence of trafficking. Several West African countries, for instance, recently formed a network to combat the problem. However, more concerted action is needed.

UNFPA is positioned to take a larger role in addressing this issue, particularly by strengthening the capacities of its programme countries. Strategies and interventions to address trafficking should include:

UNFPA is one of several United Nation agencies working on trafficking, both through partnerships and by promoting dialogue to bring greater visibility to the issue and share information about it.

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