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


"Violations of human rights are both a cause and a consequence of trafficking in persons. Accordingly, it is essential to place the protection of all human rights at the center of any measures taken to prevent and end trafficking." From Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking, issued by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Economic and Social Council (E/2002/68/Add.1), 20 May 2002. Although trafficking in women violates the specific protections of international documents such as the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, it also violates other more general human rights norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (UDHR), Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  Additionally, according to the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court trafficking can be considered a crime against humanity or a war crime under some circumstances.

When recruiting, traffickers typically charge women inflated prices for securing travel and employment documentation and transportation. Once they have arrived in a destination country, women are then held in a form of debt bondage while they attempt to pay these debts. In many cases, women are held in sexual servitude. They may be locked into rooms, apartments or brothels, unable to leave or contact help. If a woman resists being prostituted, the trafficker may withhold food, assault and/or rape her. Research on trafficking has even revealed cases of traffickers killing women as an example to other victims in order to exert control through terror.

Scholars and activists have identified a number of human rights violations that may occur in the context of trafficking. For example, in a trafficking case, as described above, the following civil and political rights may be violated: the right to personal liberty and autonomy, the right to bodily integrity, the right to freedom of movement and expression, the right to freedom from torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to be free from forced labor and slavery. Trafficking may also violate a woman's social, cultural and economic rights, such as health, free access to education and information, and favorable working conditions, including just compensation and reasonable working hours.

Trafficking in women violates women's human rights. However, it is important that laws intended to protect women from trafficking are not themselves so restrictive that they violate such rights. In the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons 2005 report, Ms. Sigma Huda says that she believes “in spite of its overwhelming human rights dimension, trafficking continues to be treated as mainly a “law and order” problem,” and that victims of trafficking can suffer from “re-victimization” as they are “criminalized and prosecuted as illegal aliens, undocumented workers or irregular migrants rather than as victims of a crime themselves.” 

Additionally, in her 2003 Report, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women notes that some states have passed anti-trafficking laws that limit the freedom of movement of women by requiring women to obtain permission from male relatives in order to get a passport or travel abroad. The Special Rapporteur suggests that states follow the Recommended Principles and Guidelines. These guidelines include a provision asking states to consider "[e]stablishing mechanisms to monitor the human rights impact of anti-trafficking laws, policies, programmes and interventions."