Trafficking and Women's Human Rights
last updated September 1, 2005

The United Nations began to approach trafficking in women as a human rights violation in the early 1990's.  As outlined above, prior to this time, reiterations of the need to address trafficking equated the problem with forced prostitution.  The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by General Assembly resolution in 1967, for example, mentions only that, "All appropriate measures, including legislation, shall be taken to combat all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."  (Article 8).  The subsequent Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which entered into force in 1981 and creates binding obligations for signatories, added little to the earlier 1949 Convention or Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, requiring State parties to "take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."  (Article 6).

The report of the Third World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women, which was held in Nairobi in 1985, included women victims of trafficking and involuntary prostitution as an area of special concern.  At the time of the Third World Conference, trafficking discourse was still limited to the exploitation of women as prostitutes, and the UN urged State parties to the 1949 Convention to enact measures to combat trafficking for the purposes of prostitution as well as attendant crimes, such as violence and drug abuse.  The UN also emphasized the need for States to assist prostitutes with reintegration, including the provision of economic opportunities, training, employment, self-employment and health facilities for women and children.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as mentioned above, articulates a need to combat trafficking but does not directly address violence against women generally.  The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women clarified that trafficking is a form of gender-based violence when it adopted General Recommendation No. 19 in 1992, which highlights the interconnections between trafficking in women, women's lower economic status, armed conflict and violence.  General Recommendation 19 explains, "Poverty and unemployment increase opportunities for trafficking in women.  In addition to established forms of trafficking there are new forms of sexual exploitation, such as sex tourism, the recruitment of domestic labor from developing countries to work in developed countries and organized marriages between women from developing countries and foreign nationals.  These practices are incompatible with the equal enjoyment of rights by women and with respect for their rights and dignity.  They put women at special risk of violence and abuse. . . .  Wars, armed conflicts and the occupation of territories often lead to increased prostitution, trafficking in women and sexual assault of women, which require specific protective and punitive measures."  (Articles 14; 16).  The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also made specific  recommendations to State parties to the Convention to prevent and punish trafficking and to include information about trafficking in periodic reports that describe "the extent of [the] problems and the measures, including penal provisions, preventive and rehabilitation measures that have been taken to protect women engaged in prostitution or subject to trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation."  (Article 24(h)).  Although General Recommendation 19 does not have the force of law, it is a pivotal UN statement on States' obligation to protect women from violence.

In 1993, 160 countries attended the UN Second World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna.  This conference achieved significant changes in the perception and understanding of women's human rights in the United Nations system and around the world.  The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action states "the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. . . . Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated.  This can be achieved by legal measures and through national action and international cooperation . . . ."  The Vienna Declaration represents an articulation of trafficking as gender-based violence, without equating it to forced prostitution or raising issues of consent.  (Articles 18; 38). 

The Second World Conference on Human Rights also led to the creation of three important instruments, which have advanced women's human rights and address the issue of trafficking in women: the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the creation of the position of a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, "Convention of Belém do Pará."

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by General Assembly Resolution six months after the Second World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, expands upon the articulation of violence against women of Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, stating "Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following: . . . Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family . . . Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution; Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs."  While illustrating the connections between trafficking and forced prostitution, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women underscores the level of violence that women victims of trafficking experience.

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action defines trafficking in women as a form of gender-based violence (Paragraph 100) and represents a commitment by governments to enact preventative measures to protect women from trafficking, such as the enforcement of laws, the provision of legal protection and medical assistance.  (Strategic Objective C.2 108 (q)).  The document emphasizes the need for States to address the "root factors, including external factors, that encourage trafficking in women and girls for prostitution and other forms of commercialized sex, forced marriages and forced labor in order to eliminate trafficking in women, including by strengthening existing legislation with a view to providing better protection of the rights of women and girls and to punishing the perpetrators, through both criminal and civil measures."  (Strategic Objective D.3 131(b)). The Beijing Platform for Action also encourages States to implement the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others of Others and other relevant instruments.  (Strategic Objective C.5. (123)). 

In 1996 and 1997, then Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, traveled to Eastern Europe to gather information on violence against women, including trafficking.  Ms. Coomaraswamy's 1996 Report on the mission of the Special Rapporteur to Poland on the issue of trafficking and forced prostitution of women (E/CN.4/1997/47/Add.1) provided important information about the dynamics of the problem, including information about recruitment methods, trafficking routes and the difficulty of prosecuting traffickers under national law.  Ms. Coomaraswamy issued a later report on Violence against Women (E/CN.4/1997/47), in 1997, which provided a broader analysis of the problem of trafficking.  Ms. Coomaraswamy points out that trafficking had previously been conceptualized as prostitution but, in fact, women are trafficked into "slavery-like conditions as prostitutes, domestic workers, sweatshop laborers or wives."  She states that trafficking routes duplicate migration routes and are not necessarily only from South to North but occur regionally and within States.  This report of the Special Rapporteur also points out that because trafficking involves cross-border movement, it is an issue that should be addressed by international standards and consensus.