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Why Child Sex Trafficking is a “Women’s Issue”
March 11, 2021

Monday the 8th was International Women’s Day, so we’re taking the month of March to highlight gender dynamics in child sex trafficking. Also, Global Giving is hosting a special International Women’s Week campaign through Friday – online donations via their website up to $50 will be matched at 50%click here to get started!

You may have seen child sex trafficking called “women’s issues” or “gender-based violence.” If you’re new to the topic, or came to it via a different route, it may not be clear why it’s framed that way, so we’re going to explain how that came to be.

Framing Child Trafficking as a “Women’s Issue”

Although human trafficking has been on international policy agendas since at least 2000, and the fight against sex trafficking has a long history of bringing together a coalition of Evangelical Christians, feminists, and anti-labor trafficking NGOs, it was closer to 2010 when it was re-framed as a “women’s issue.” Particularly influential was the release of Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn coinciding with a Women in the World summit that brought together powerful women leaders from around the world. That put sex trafficking alongside other forms of violence against women, including: honor killings such as acid attacks and bride burning, rape (in general, and as a weapon of war), female genital mutilation, child brides, maternal mortality, and the disproportionate deaths and disappearances of girls in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, etc. 

Putting these issues together on the same slate and framing it all as forms of global systematic oppression against women worked well alongside a wider movement amongst economists, public health experts, and organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank that began to see gender equality as critical to combating global poverty. Post 9/11, military and counter-terrorism agencies were also making the case that empowering women and girls could be central to disempowering terrorists. Gender equality moved from a fringe issue to become a major part of policy agendas, wherein advocates from a variety of sectors demanded investment in the education of women and girls, more women voices in leadership positions, and that women would be able to work safely and with dignity. The belief was that educating girls and making the world safer for women was in all our interests, as benefits radiate outward: called “the girl effect.” When women are educated, they are more likely to support their children and communities in becoming educated, which leads to better job and livelihood prospects for their communities and wider societies, improving health as well as economic and national security.

The Case for Sex Trafficking as a “Women’s Issue”

Sex trafficking is framed as a “women’s issue” because it disproportionately affects women and girls. An International Labor Organization report from 2012 stated that women and girls account for 71% of victims of modern slavery, women and girls make up 99% of victims of forced labor in the commercial sex trade, and children in commercial sexual exploitation make up 21% of this type of abuse. 

As we’ve discussed before, data collection has been particularly problematic in this field – for example, that 99% figure is a clear under-representation of victims who are boys or men. However, as identification of victims and collection of data has gradually improved, the overall dynamic has remained relatively constant. A UNODC report from 2018 (using data from 2016) states “the vast majority of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are females, in particular women (68 per cent), while girls account for 26 per cent. Males – boys and men in equal proportions – together account for some 6 per cent of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.” An IOM initiative pulling together trends over time shows the share of women in sexual exploitation in 2017 at 65% and girls at 28%.

Moreover, those who’ve been investigated or arrested for trafficking are disproportionately men. The UNODC report puts that number at 72%. It’s also generally undisputed that the vast majority sex buyers are men, even if a small number of women do also participate.

These are just a few of countless studies that support this general dynamic: that women and girls are most often the victims of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor in the sex trade. While exact figures may vary, even as victim identification and data collection improve, this understanding has remained remarkably stable over time.

Where It Gets Murky

For people who are already on board with the idea that we need to invest in girls’ education and include women in positions of power, the inclusion of sex trafficking as a “women’s issue” and alongside other forms of gender-based violence makes clear sense, given its disproportionate impact on women and girls. 

Ironically, however, framing sex trafficking as a “women’s issue” or a problem of “gender-based biolence” might mean that people who aren’t pre-disposed to care about those issues will not see it as a problem of universal concern. It sidelines what we know about the vulnerability of people who identify as LGBTQ+. And it might come across as a misnomer when one considers that men and boys can be victims, and women can also be traffickers. 

While framing it as a “women’s issue” might exclude some who are affected as well as others who should be brought alongside to fight it, applying a “feminist lens” to the issue might nevertheless help situate this all in a way that makes sense. Stay tuned as next week we’ll take a look at these issues more deeply, and also explain why a feminist lens can be helpful for making sense of it all.