Human Trafficking as a Gendered Phenomenon: CEDAW and a missing jigsaw piece – Part II

In the first part of this blog, we provided a summary of our article “Human Trafficking as A Gendered Phenomenon: CEDAW in Perspective in which we argue that the CEDAW Committee is an important actor whose voice should be heard when discussing States obligations towards the elimination of trafficking and that Article 6 of the Convention needs further clarification/development.

Since publication of our article we have continued to ask ourselves how and why trafficking is divorced from the issue of violence against women within CEDAW’s framework. This posts sets out part of this brief history as a prelude to our article and as part of the history of women’s rights advocacy on these issues. We hope that others can elaborate on the schism between Article 6 and violence against women, and the ongoing lack of a GR on human trafficking.

Gender-Based Violence Against Women

Last year, the CEDAW Committee updated General Recommendation No 19 on violence against women in its General Recommendation No 35 (2017). This GR has garnered much attention for both its content and for its procedure with over 100 women’s groups, NGOs and stakeholders contributing to its promulgation.[1] The Recommendation, which acts as authoritative guidance on the Committee’s interpretation of the Convention’s provisions in relation to violence, acknowledges that despite advances in the field since GR19, gender-based violence against women remains pervasive in all countries of the world and it manifests in a continuum, in a range of settings.[2] The updated substantive statement on gender-based violence against women is a reminder of where we have come and where we still have to go to eradicate violence, and make the right to live a life free from violence a reality.[3]

GR 35 however does not however deal with the issue of human trafficking of women and girls. While trafficking has been mentioned in a number of the Committee’s General Recommendations (GR 26, 28, and 35) the Committee has only done so in passing, instead commenting in its GR on migrant workers that the phenomenon of trafficking could be more comprehensively addressed in its own GR on Article 6. It has remained a mystery to us as to why the Committee has remained interpretatively silent on an important substantive article, leading us to question why Article 6 and violence against women have become separated and whether the Committee has always taken this approach.

An Archaeological Dig

It is well known that the Convention did not include a substantive article on violence against women and that instead GR19 marked an important step in the Committee’s interpretation of the Convention to make explicit the link between violence and discrimination. An analysis of the CEDAW Committee’s session minutes indicates that at the time of drafting GR19, Article 6 (trafficking) formed an integral part of that discussion. GR19 was adopted at the eleventh session, and it was and still is a landmark statement on gender-based violence. It provides an article by article approach setting out how the different articles of the Convention interact and relate to violence against women.

Interestingly, the minutes of the 10th and 11th sessions seem to indicate that originally violence and trafficking were to be considered together in one general recommendation.  The report mentions an anticipated discussion of Article 6 of the Convention and that members were asked to consider the report of the Secretary General on Violence against Women in all its forms, which contained the report of the Expert Group Meeting on Violence against Women, held in Vienna in 1991. We then see that a member (anonymised) expresses concern over the lack of coordination of the CEDAW Committee with the Expert Group and the Commission of the Status of Women. Different experts voiced their consideration at the risk of duplication. One member asked if “it was perhaps necessary to have two separate recommendations: one on violence and one on article 6”.

The report then records that GR19 was adopted as a response to the Expert Group Meeting on Violence against Women and that comments of the Working Group on Article 6, would be picked up at a later session. Ms Bustelo and Ms Aouij volunteered to prepare draft general comments for the next session. At the 12th session, the Working Group recommended that the work should be continued. The minutes of the 12th session thus further indicate that there has been long-standing work on a General Recommendation on Article 6 yet it is unclear from the later minutes what happened and why this GR has not come to fruition. This mystery is underlined further by the Committee’s own statement in the GR on migrant women that there should be a separate recommendation in relation to Article 6 and trafficking.


The work of the Committee continues today and is phenomenally important to women’s rights advocates. The Committee’s work on gender-based violence against women as a form of discrimination together with its specialised status in interpreting human rights norms and obligations in relation to women has been significant and influential. In the context where regional and international courts and tribunals have yet to grasp how trafficking is a gendered phenomenon CEDAW’s interpretative expertise is welcome, and in our view, long overview. Understandably, the Committee has many competing issues to deal with, and we recognise that Article 6 presents particular theoretical and political challenges.  However, the seriousness and pervasiveness of the violations of women and girls’ rights who suffer from human trafficking and exploitation in prostitution demands the Committee’s specialised and expert action. The enactment of GR35 forms another historical moment for the Committee, and for us another reminder that more has to be done to tackle trafficking against women and girls.

[1] ‘The CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 35. A renewed vision for a world free of gender-based violence against women’, available at

[2] ‘CEDAW General Recommendation 35 draws an explicit link between gender, discrimination and conflict-related violence against women’, available at

[3] ‘CEDAW General Recommendation 35 on violence against women is a significant step forward’, available at


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

[3] 15 years of The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, available at

[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

[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.