Health Consequences of Trafficking
last updated September 1, 2005

The act of trafficking and the attendant human rights violations can have very serious consequences for the victim. Women who have been trafficked may suffer from serious physical and mental health problems. Service providers who work with victims should be aware of the severe and interrelated health consequences that result from trafficking.



Trafficking victims often suffer from serious physical abuse and physical exhaustion, as well as starvation. Typical injuries can include broken bones, concussion, bruising or burns, as well as other injuries consistent with assault. Some of these serious injuries can cause lasting health problems and may require long-term treatment. Because women who have been trafficked have been subjected to multiple abuses over an extensive period of time, they may suffer health consequences similar to those of victims of prolonged torture.

Sexual assault is a traumatic event with physical and emotional effects on the victim. Sexual assault is any sexual activity between two or more people in which one person is involved against his or her will. The sexual activity involved in an assault can include many different experiences. Women can be the victims of unwanted touching, grabbing, oral sex, anal sex, sexual penetration with an object, and/or sexual intercourse. Trafficking victims are often made to participate in sexual activities through, for example, pressure from someone with authority over them, bribery or manipulation, or impairment from alcohol or drugs. After experiencing sexual assault, a woman may experience a range of physical consequences and emotional reactions, including severe stress and depression. More information on reactions women have to sexual assault can be found in the section entitled Sexual Assault.

Women who work in the commercial sex trade are vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health complications, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (most notably HIV/AIDS) and other gynecological problems. Women who have been trafficked into the sex trade often may not have access to, or are not allowed to use, condoms or other methods of birth control, and may only have irregular gynecological examinations. Such women face the risk of unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages. Women who work as prostitutes experience high rates of abortion, sterilization and infertility.

This type of physical and sexual abuse leads to severe mental or emotional health consequences, including feelings of severe guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse (alcohol or narcotics) and eating disorders. In extreme cases, the mental anguish can lead to self-mutilation or suicide. Victims of trafficking often need psychological care as part of standard medical treatment.

A Kvinnoforum resource book, Crossing Borders Against Trafficking in Women and Girls (1999), contains a list of the common reactions women have after being trafficked as well as a description of the general psychological support needed by victims. The list was complied by Nadejda Kostadinova, a psychotherapist with the Animus Association, a Bulgarian NGO. Ms. Kostadinova also advises that "[w]omen need sessions with a therapist in order to share their problems in a secure environment. . . . The role of the consultant is to listen to the woman and to direct the session. She/he encourages the woman to step firm on the ground, to remember her capabilities and to recognize the strength, which helped her to survive."

In addition, women's rights groups that provide services for trafficked women have identified behaviors in trafficking victims that stem from a psychological survival strategy known as the "Stockholm Syndrome."  The Stockholm Syndrome describes a situation in which a victim, usually a captive, develops an emotional bond with a captor. According to experts, the condition develops in response to four specific situations:  

  • A person threatens to kill another and is perceived as having the capability to do so.
  • The other cannot escape, so her or his life depends on the threatening person.
  • The threatened person is isolated from outsiders so that the only other perspective available to her or him is that of the threatening person.
  • The threatening person is perceived as showing some degree of kindness to the one being threatened.

From Women Helping Battered Women (citing Jeri Martinez, Domestic Violence Response Training Curriculum, November 1991).

While originally used to describe a hostage situation, the strategies employed by the victims exhibiting the Stockholm Syndrome have also been documented in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. In the case of trafficking in women, it has been found that, in order to cope with their situation of helplessness, threats, and abuse, victims have entered into relationships with traffickers. They may begin to work with traffickers and pimps and eventually become complicit in the trafficking process through such activities as supervising other trafficking victims and even engaging in the recruitment of women into the commercial sex industry.

It is important for both service providers and law enforcement officials to understand this phenomenon. It may not be immediately apparent that such women can require the same kind of support and assistance offered to trafficking victims.