Human Trafficking as a Gendered Phenomenon – Part I

This is part 1 of a two-part post on human trafficking as a gendered phenomenon. In this first part we provide a brief contextualisation to the issue and introduce our recently published article examining the relationship between the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and human trafficking. In the second post, we take a historical look at how the issue of trafficking became divorced from the Committee’s work on violence against women.

Trafficking in human beings is a gendered phenomenon.[1] An estimated 79% of all detected trafficking victims are women and children and traffickers are ‘overwhelmingly male’.[2] As the former Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences (Special Rapporteur on VAWG) commented in her 15 year review of the mandate, human trafficking is one of the major areas of concern with regards to violence against women (alongside domestic violence, sexual violence in conflict and reproductive rights violations).[3]  The Special Rapporteur on VAWG commented that there has been a marked shift on policy in this area from a ‘prostitution framework’ to a framework which places human rights at the centre of the debate. The Declaration on Violence against Women (DEVAW) confirms this view and recognizes human trafficking as a form of violence against women (Article 2(b)). Further, violence against women has now been recognized as a form of discrimination against women.[4] It is therefore clear that human trafficking is a form of violence and discrimination against women.

More recently, trafficking has been recognised as one of the main forms of violence that women face in the context of migration.[5] Trafficked women and girls often face different forms of gender-based violence such as sexual violence, rape, violation of their reproductive rights, and slavery both in destination and during their trip. Trafficking may constitute torture, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, and it has been identified as a threat to international peace and security by the Security Council (S/RES/2331 (2016)). States of origin, transit, and destination have obligations to prevent trafficking, protect victims (within their territory and from refoulement to a country where there is a risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including the risk of re-trafficking), and to prosecute traffickers. For States to comply with these obligations, victims must be properly identified and identification proceedings must be put in place at strategic points on migration routes and access to asylum proceedings must be granted.

In practice, much remains to be done to implement a human rights and a gender approach to trafficking that can provide justice to those who have suffered violations of their rights due to human trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labour and other forms of exploitation, slavery and servitude. Most States aim to combat human trafficking from a migrant model a criminal justice perspective and more recently a security approach, thus neglecting the rights of trafficking victims.

In our article “Human Trafficking as A Gendered Phenomenon: CEDAW in Perspective”, we argue that CEDAW is an important human rights instrument in the fight against trafficking in human beings. By way of brief introduction, the Convention is an international human rights treaty dedicated to women and girls. It has been described as ‘the definitive international legal instrument requiring respect for and observance of the human rights of women.[6] At the core of the Women’s Convention is the eradication of discrimination against women and States parties to the Convention accept wide-ranging obligations to promote equality in all spheres of life.[7]

Trafficking is expressly prohibited under CEDAW in Article 6, which mandates states to take all appropriate measures to supress trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution. We argued that given the disproportionate number of women and girls who are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labour, the Convention is a valuable instrument, contextualising trafficking in the context of structural inequality, violence and discrimination. Further, the Committee’s General Recommendation No.30 and General Recommendation No. 35 point to some of the underlying factos which make women vulnerable to being trafficked including conflict, extractive industries, global supply chains and natural disasters. Significantly no State party has entered a reservation to Article 6.

However, Article 6 does not define the terms trafficking and exploitation of prostitution and the scope and contours of the obligation remain uncertain. Through an analysis of the Committee’s jurisprudence, we found that the Committee has yet to find a violation of Article 6 of the Convention finding all cases pleading Article 6 inadmissible. Further, the Committee has yet to draft a specific general recommendation on Article 6 which seems to be a glaring omission. CEDAW should make good its promise and provide substantive guidance on the scope of Article 6 of the Convention and States obligations to suppress and tackle trafficking. We argue that this is especially necessary given the lack of gender and structural analysis of trafficking by other regional and international courts and bodies and the brevity with which trafficking is dealt with in General Recommendation No 35 on violence against women.

[1] The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons. ‘The gender dimensions of human trafficking’, Issue Brief #4, 2017.

[2] The UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016 notes that an increasing number of men have been detected as trafficking victims, United Nations Publication. Available at www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2016_Global_Report_on_Trafficking_in_Persons.pdf

[3] 15 years of The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, available at www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Women/15YearReviewofVAWMandate.pdf

[4] General Recommendation No. 35 (CEDAW) see paragraph 1 and 7. Opuz v Turkey (2010) 50 EHRR 28.

[5] Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on Migration-Related Torture and Ill-Treatment, February 2018, A/HRC/37/50, available at www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Torture/A_HRC_37_50_EN.pdf

[6] Rebecca Cook ‘Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women’ 30 Virginia J Intl’l Law (1990) 643, at 643.

[7] Andrew Byrnes and Marsha A. Freeman ‘The Impact of the CEDAW Convention: Paths to Equality A Study for the World Bank’ University of New South Wales Faculty of Law Research Series 2012, paper 7.

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