Gender Aspects of Human Trafficking

By Emilie Linder


According to international law, trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. It has dreadful effects on many aspects of the trafficked person victims’ life such as exposition to physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence, amounting at times to torture.

Conforming to the UN Trafficking Protocol, a victim of human trafficking is considered as someone who has been coerced or brought into any kind of labour through force and fraudulent means. They may have been kidnapped, and/or brought in at an age or in a state where they had no capacity to give or withhold consent.

A global phenomenon

Almost every country in the world is involved in human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. The 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons estimated that around 137 different nationalities were trafficked and identified in 106 different countries.

According to the International Labour Organization, in 2016, 24.9 million people were victims of forced labour, which includes 4.8 million trafficking victims used for sexual exploitation. Trafficking affects both men and women, however this phenomenon is not gender-neutral. Women and girls together account for about 71 percent of the victims.

But what can explain the high number of women and girls becoming more vulnerable to trafficking related violence?

  • Migration

According to the Global Commission on International Migration, there are now around 258 million international migrants worldwide, of which nearly 50 percent are women.  Traditionally, it was mainly men who sought jobs overseas; nowadays, migration is characterized by a growing number of women and girls. There are several reasons explaining this migration shift. For instance, migration is often cheaper and easier for women than for men, as education and skills requirements are lower for women. In addition, there has been an increased demand for female labour in areas such as household and care-giving work and other services of low-wage manufacturing.

It’s key to understand that migration and human trafficking do not always go hand to hand. Every year, millions of women migrate freely and autonomously for diverse reasons. These women are not victims of trafficking. Trafficking starts out as recruitment or movement, and ends with exploitation. The connection between the increase of migration flow and human trafficking, lay in the fact that human traffickers are using migration flow and vulnerabilities of some migrants to force more people into modern slavery.

  • Poverty

There is a strong link between gender, poverty and trafficking. Economic inequality is gendered as poverty impacts women more severely than men. This situation can be explained by several factors such as gender pay gaps, single mother households, as well as social and cultural exclusion women often face. A consequence of poverty is the fact that women living in precarious conditions are more likely to take extreme risks in order to access economic opportunities in others countries. This demand is attractive to individuals willing or looking to develop illegal businesses based on organized criminal networks and human trafficking.

According to Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in Persons : addressing the root causes that make people vulnerable to traffickers is necessary in order to fully suppress this practice. Awareness raising and empowerment through the realization of socio economic as well as civil and political rights could save many from falling in the traps of traffickers.

  • Gender norms

Finally, the trafficking demand is often produced by discriminatory attitudes including cultural attitudes and beliefs which impacts women politically, economically and socially. In 2000, Radhika Coomeraswamy, the former Rapporteur on Violence against Women declared that: The lack of rights afforded to women serves as the primary causative factor at the root of both women’s migration and trafficking. Indeed, unequal access to education, limited opportunities to access/own land and property and other forms of gender discrimination, increase the vulnerability of women and girls to trafficking. Moreover, in a society where gender ideology perceives women as weak and unpowered individuals, women are considered easier to manipulate and less likely to rebel, making them more susceptible to trafficking.


Thanks to numerous studies, we can now demonstrate with details how gender inequality and human trafficking are intrinsically linked. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a greater universal effort to eliminate gender inequality and to promote empowerment of women in order to eradicate human trafficking. Lastly, it’s essential that any attempt to address the issue of gendered aspects of trafficking and the parallel anti-trafficking efforts must place the trafficked persons and their voices and agency at the centre of the discourse.

Emilie Linder is passionate about women’s rights issues, volunteers for several NGOs fighting against sexual violence and discrimination. Follow her at @emilie_linder

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