What Is Trafficking in Women?

Finding a Common Definition for Trafficking

last updated September 1, 2005

The problem of trafficking in women has been addressed at the international, regional and national levels. Before the creation of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in October 2000, international treaties referred to trafficking without defining or clarifying whether trafficking includes all forms of sex work. For example, Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women states "Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."

There was little agreement in the international community about how trafficking should be defined. In early treaties, trafficking was often synonymous with the trade in women for prostitution. Later, the term "trafficking" was also used to describe the smuggling of male and female migrants over borders for economic gain. In the late 1990s, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed out that "despite divergent definitions, there is a growing agreement that the problem of 'trafficking in human beings' involves two key elements: recruitment/transport and forced labor or slavery-like practices (actual or attempted) ... Moreover, most experts agree that trafficking should be defined as involving deception or coercion of some kind." From Trafficking in Human Beings: Implications for the OSCE, ODIHR Background paper, 1999/3.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children is the first international consensus definition of the problem. The Protocol defines "trafficking in persons" as follows:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring 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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The Protocol also explains that "the consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation . . . shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] are established" or where the victim is a child. 

The Interpretive Notes (Travaux Préparatories) to the Protocol clarify that a person in a "position of vulnerability" refers to "any situation in which the person involved has no real and acceptable alternative but to submit to the abuse involved." The Protocol also explains that there will be no defense of "consent" when a vulnerable person is exploited through trafficking.

Finally, the Interpretive Notes are explicit that the Protocol deliberately does not define the terms "'exploitation of the prostitution of others" or "other forms of sexual exploitation," leaving individual State Parties to define these terms according to national law. During the drafting stage, much debate surrounded how the Protocol would address the issue of work in the commercial sex industry, and the language in the document represents a consensus that enabled the Protocol to be widely ratified.

Since the adoption of the Protocol, this consensus definition has become the basis for the definition of trafficking in other documents. The European Union Council Framework Decision of 19 July 2002 on combating trafficking in human beings adopts a definition similar to the Protocol, while the 2004 Model State Anti-Trafficking Criminal Statute (Note: Section 225 of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 recommends a new model state statute be promulgated.) builds on the U.N. definition to specify the types of behaviors that constitute trafficking.


It is helpful for NGOs that engage in preventive and rehabilitative work with women, children and communities to be able to identify common characteristics of trafficking. Amnesty International has identified several such characteristics, which may be useful to advocates who are working to address the problem:

Women constitute a large proportion of the overall number of people trafficked, that is transferred within or across national borders from their place of habitual residence;

The illicit movement of women takes place at the hands of "traffickers," loosely defined as people profiteering from organizing, carrying out or otherwise facilitating the illicit transit of persons;

The majority of trafficked women find themselves trapped in debt bondage, servitude or slavery-like conditions as a result of being trafficked;

One of the forces driving trafficking in women is demand for their employment - be it "voluntary" or "coerced" - in the sex industry;

Any of the women trafficked for work in the sex industry are subjected to human rights abuses directly resulting from being trafficked;

There is evidence that the fewest trafficking-related human rights abuses occur at the women's places of habitual residence, while such abuses often commence at transit locations, and they become more prevalent at the final destination;

Trafficking in women reaps huge financial profits for the traffickers and has, therefore, seen an ever-increasing involvement on the part of international organized crime.

From the PDF version, Human rights abuses of women trafficked from countries of the former Soviet Union into Israel's sex industry, Amnesty International, 18 May 2000, AI Index: MDE 15/17/00.