Prevalence of Trafficking in Women
last updated July 2015


Trafficking in persons, especially women and children, is a serious global issue that is not confined to a specific country or region. Because trafficking is largely a hidden crime, it is difficult to accurately determine the true prevalence of trafficking in women. Additionally, as with other forms of violence against women, and because trafficked women may fear retaliation, prosecution, or deportation, victims are often reluctant to report trafficking offenses to the police or other government officials.[1] Many countries have not developed standardized methods for collecting and reporting good data on trafficking crimes or trafficking victims.[2] Police, prosecutors and other officials frequently fail to identify trafficked women as victims, treating them instead as illegal migrants or “voluntary” commercial sex workers.[3] Governments also tend to investigate and prosecute trafficking related cases as “other forms of crime, such as migrant smuggling or labor-related offences,” in which case victims are not properly identified.[4] 

Despite these challenges, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has attempted to generate statistically reliable and peer-reviewed estimates of the number of trafficking victims around the world.[5] Most recently, in 2012, the ILO conservatively estimated that at any given moment in time, 20.9 million people (15.8 million women) were subjected to forced labor globally, including for commercial sexual exploitation.[6] This number does not include women and girls trafficked for other purposes, such as forced marriage or begging. The ILO has said the accuracy of its data on trafficking victims continues to suffer from a “lack of reliable national estimates based on specialized data collection instruments.”[7]  To address these gaps, the ILO in 2012 published guidelines for States on how to design and implement national trafficking surveys.[8] As of 2012, four countries had conducted the ILO’s recommended national surveys.[9] However, according to the ILO, many additional country surveys are needed to generate precise global estimates of the true scale and scope of human trafficking.[10]

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) tracks the number of people who are identified or “detected” by governments as trafficking victims and does not use statistical methods to predict the total number of victims in the world. However, the UNODC emphasizes that, “[i]t is clear that the reported numbers are only the tip of the iceberg” and that many more victims remain undetected.[11] The U.S. State Department collects similar data on known victims, reporting in 2014 that 44,000 trafficking survivors were identified globally between June 2013 and June 2014.[12]

Women account for the large majority of detected trafficking victims and as well as the majority (76%) of the ILO’s estimated number of victims trafficked globally for labor or sexual exploitation. The UNODC’s 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons found that women and girls together account for 70 percent of detected global trafficking victims.[13] This disparity between women and men victims of trafficking is due in large part to the fact that over fifty-three percent of detected trafficking victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, while 40% are trafficked for forced labor and 7% for other purposes such as organ trafficking.[14] According to the UNODC, of the persons trafficked for sexual exploitation, 97% are women and girls, while over one-third of persons trafficked for labor are women.[15] The UNODC in 2014 also reported that children in general, and girls in particular, represented a continually increasing share of detected trafficking victims over the period 2004 to 2011.[16] Other reports have identified a similar trend in traffickers targeting girls at younger and younger ages, believing they will be easier to control and to “satisfy high demand for sex with young girls.”[17]

Additionally, women and children are more vulnerable to trafficking than men because they are disproportionately impacted by some of the root causes of trafficking, including poverty, lack of education, lack of equal employment opportunities, discrimination, violence, and armed conflict. Within these broad categories of risk, other conditions specific to a victim’s personal situation will increase her vulnerability to trafficking. For example, the Canadian National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in 2014 identified several factors that increase the trafficking risk for women and girls in Canada, including:[18]

  • A history of violence or neglect;
  • A history of child sex abuse;
  • A desire for a better life, but facing limited economic opportunities;
  • Being a migrant or new immigrant and/or having low levels of social support;
  • Not having a masculine parental figure;
  • Being Indigenous;
  • Being homeless;
  • Living in [state] care, group homes, or foster care;
  • A history of running away (frequently correlated to histories of violence or neglect); substance abuse or mental health issues;
  • A history of arrests, detections or other involvement with the criminal justice system; and gang association.


[1] U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” pg. 27 (June 2014), available from

[2] UN Women, “Conducting research, data collection and analysis,” (June 2013), available from

[3] U.N. General Assembly, Sixty-ninth session, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, A/69/33797, par. 29 (July 28, 2014), available from

[5] International Labour Organization, “ILO Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings,” (Geneva 2008), available from

[6] International Labour Organization, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, “ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour:  Results and methodology,” (2012), available from

[7]Ibid., p. 13.

[8] Ibid., p. 21.

[9] Ibid., p. 21.

[10] Ibid., p. 21.

[11] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 1, (Vienna, November 2014), available from

[12] U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” (June 2014), available from

[13] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” p. 5, (Vienna, November 2014), available from 

[14] Ibid., p. 33

[15] Ibid., p.37.

[16] Ibid., p. 31.

[17] Canadian Women’s Foundation, “’NO MORE’ Ending Sex Trafficking in Canada: Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada,” p. 24 (Fall 2014), available from

[18] Ibid., p. 28.