Trafficking in Women: General Information
Last updated April 30, 2014

 

"Trafficking in women" has become an increasingly familiar phrase, as media coverage has focused more attention on the issue. Although this new level of scrutiny suggests that trafficking in women is a recent problem, the international community has addressed trafficking in women for more than 100 years, through the 1949 Convention on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, the 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (“Palermo Protocol”), and earlier treaties.[i] Significantly, the dynamics of human trafficking have changed dramatically in the modern era, necessitating new approaches to remedy this serious global human rights abuse, including specific legal protections for trafficking victims, enhanced services for trafficking victims, and more effective criminal sanctions that punish and deter perpetrators of trafficking. 

Trafficking in women affects every country and region in the world, impacting millions of individuals globally. Trafficking in women is a “dynamic process,” involving complex interactions among victims, individual traffickers, international criminal networks, and state and local institutions.[ii] Indeed, trafficking in persons has become increasingly attractive to sophisticated criminal networks and is one of the fastest growing organized criminal “enterprises” in the world,[iii] generating a minimum of $32 billion in illegal profits each year.[iv] Despite the clandestine and global nature of trafficking, certain common patterns emerge, such as trafficking flows from rural to urban areas within countries, and from less developed to more developed countries within regions.[v] From 2007 to 2010, almost half of the global victims of human trafficking were trafficked within their region of origin, 27% of victims were trafficked domestically, and 24% were trafficked across continents.[vi] Please see the Prevalence of Trafficking in Women section of this website for more information.

Women and girls are overwhelmingly the targets and victims of human trafficking. The 2012 UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons estimated that women and girls together account for more than 75% of global trafficking victims.[vii] Over 58% of detected trafficked persons are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 36% are trafficked for forced labor.[viii] Of the persons trafficked for sexual exploitation, 98% are women and girls.[ix] Violence and abuse are common – more than 95% of trafficking victims have experienced physical or sexual violence.[x] Trafficking victims suffer serious physical and mental health impacts, including bodily injuries consistent with physical and sexual abuse, exhaustion, starvation, depression, PTSD, and exposure to life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS.[xi] The International Labor Organization (ILO) conservatively estimates that at any given moment in time, nearly 21 million people (15.8 million women) are subjected to forced labor globally, including for sexual exploitation.[xii]

The current UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezelio, identified poverty, lack of education and economic opportunity, pervasive gender discrimination, restrictive immigration laws, war and violent conflict as root causes of trafficking.[xiii] Such conditions leave many women and children vulnerable to traffickers seeking to exploit and profit from their desire to find a “better life.”[xiv]

In countries in transition and developing nations, the process of privatization and the transition to a global economy, combined with sex discrimination, have resulted in increased economic burdens for women and the “feminization of poverty and migration.”[xv] Traffickers profit from the unequal social and economic status of women around the world. The demand for, and treatment of, women in the commercial sex industry also stems from sex-based and race-based discrimination.[xvi] Please see Trafficking in Women: Causes and Risk Factors for more information.

Individual countries and regional and international organizations are undertaking several global and regional initiatives to combat trafficking, especially targeting women and children. For example, in March 2007, the United Nations launched the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (GIFT). The GIFT works with both state and non-state actors to reduce the vulnerability of victims and the demand for exploited and trafficked persons. Additionally, 147 countries have signed the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children (“Palermo Protocol”).[xvii] The Palermo Protocol, which entered into force on September 29, 2003, requires state parties to adopt legislation criminalizing trafficking in persons and calls on member states to protect and, where possible, provide social services and compensation to trafficking victims.[xviii]

Other international and regional actions include the appointment of a United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, the adoption of the Economic and Social Council’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking, and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The Council of Europe (“COE”) also established a 15-member expert body on trafficking in persons, or GRETA, that is charged with monitoring implementation of the Convention. Many of these initiatives include a strong focus on integrating a human rights approach to preventing and combating trafficking, and protecting trafficked women and children.[xix] For more information on these and other international and regional activities, please see the International Law on Trafficking in Women and Regional Law and Standards sections of this site.

Adequately addressing the issue of trafficking in women also involves the adoption and implementation of strong domestic and national laws that fully integrate international human rights-based standards for the prevention and punishment of trafficking, and the protection of victims. The 2012 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons noted the positive impact of the Palermo Protocol in driving adoption of domestic legislation “criminalizing all or most forms of trafficking.”[xx] The UNODC has also published a “Model Law” on trafficking in persons to assist states in fulfilling their obligations under the Palermo Protocol. For “best practices” and model legislation that further the human rights of victims, please see Drafting Laws on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls, developed by the Advocates for Human Rights in collaboration UN Women.

Specifically, the 2012 UNODC report found that at least 153 countries and territories have now adopted some form of anti-trafficking legislation.[xxi] Of those countries, 134 have adopted comprehensive criminal laws and established a “strong legislative basis for cooperation, exchange of good practices and a common understanding of what trafficking in persons is and that victims of this crime are to be protected.”[xxii] Another 19 countries have adopted more limited legislative frameworks, but still outlaw some form of trafficking in persons, often trafficking for prostitution, or recognize certain classes of trafficking victims such as women and children.[xxiii]

For example, the United States first passed a comprehensive law in 2000 called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), creating strict new criminal sanctions against traffickers as well as new requirements for the protection of trafficking victims.[xxiv] The TVPA recognized that existing U.S. law was inadequate to 1) deter trafficking or adequately punish traffickers, 2) protect victims, particularly women, from being wrongfully penalized or deported, or 3) ensure that victims receive the services they need. [xxv]  The TVPA was reauthorized in 2013.[xxvi]

Despite the enactment of new domestic anti-trafficking legislation worldwide, fighting impunity for trafficking in persons remains a significant challenge. Globally the number of trafficking convictions is extraordinarily low, with 16% of countries surveyed by the UNODC failing to record a single conviction between 2007 and 2010.[xxvii] However, according to the UNODC, the data indicates a slowly increasing number of convictions worldwide. Between the years 2007 and 2010, 23% of countries recorded between one and ten convictions per year.[xxviii] Another 25% recorded between 10 and 50 convictions in “at least one year.”[xxix] The remaining countries did not have any data on convictions related to trafficking. According to the UNODC, this demonstrates a strong need for data collection and information sharing on the issue, particularly as true scope and scale of the problem is largely hidden in many parts of the world.[xxx] UNODC has established a “Human Trafficking Case law” database to assist prosecutors and judges in effectively implementing and using trafficking laws to prosecute offenders. The UNODC in general identified a lack of resources, institutional capacity, monitoring and knowledge as key barriers to successful efforts to fight trafficking in persons.[xxxi]

For more information on domestic and national approaches to trafficking, together with resources and guidelines on criminal law and victim protection, please see the Trafficking in Women: Domestic and National Law section of this website.



[i] Please see the Historical Overview of the UN Perspective on Trafficking section of this website for more information.

[iii] State of California, Office of the Attorney General, “Human Trafficking,” 2012.

[iv] International Labour Organization, “The Cost of Coercion,” Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, International Labour Conference, 98th Session, Report I(B) (2009), available from http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_106268.pdf.

[v] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons” (December 2012), available from http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/Trafficking_in_Persons_2012_web.pdf.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 7.

[viii] Ibid.

[x] UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, “Human Trafficking Fact Sheet” (2008), available from http://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/issues_doc/labour/Forced_labour/HUMAN_TRAFFICKING_-_THE_FACTS_-_final.pdf.

[xi] UN Office on Drugs and Crime and UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, “An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action,” pp. 82-88 (2008), available from http://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/An_Introduction_to_Human_Trafficking_-_Background_Paper.pdf. See also the Effects and Consequences of Trafficking in Women section of this website.

[xii] International Labour Organization, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, “ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour:  Results and methodology,” (2012), available from http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf.

[xiv] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons” (December 2012), available from http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/Trafficking_in_Persons_2012_web.pdf.

[xvi] Aiko Joshi, “The Face of Human Trafficking,” 13 Hasting’s Women’s L.J. 18, 23-39 (2002)

[xvii] United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto, New York, 15 November 2000, United Nations Treaty Series, vol