Unfinished business: addressing the victimisation of women and girls

Jacqueline Joudo Larsen | Senior Research Manager, Walk Free

Although modern slavery occurs in every corner of the globe and affects many regardless of race, gender, religion, and socio-economic status, females are disproportionately affected. Nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of modern slavery’s victims are women and girls.1 This varies depending on the form of slavery but, notably, there are more female than male victims across all forms of modern slavery except for state-imposed forced labour. The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery revealed that women and girls account for 99 percent of victims of forced labour in the commercial sex industry, 58 percent in other sectors (for example, domestic work), 40 percent of victims of forced labour imposed by state authorities, and 84 percent of victims of forced marriage.

There are many examples of women in forced labour around the globe. Women are trafficked from Nigeria to southern and western Europe, or from Malaysia to Australia, for commercial sexual exploitation.2 Large numbers of women travel from Southeast Asia to the Middle East for domestic work only to face extreme exploitation on arrival. Many more victims are exploited closer to home. For example, Ugandan women and girls are trafficked to South Africa and the Middle East where they often end up exploited in domestic work or the sex industry.3 Within the Caribbean region, women are trafficked from Guyana and Jamaica to neighbouring nations such as Antigua and Barbuda.4

Some forms of modern slavery, such as forced marriage, can be difficult to parse out from cultural practice. Forced marriages occur in both developing and developed nations, with women and girls being forced to marry for many reasons, some of which are closely linked to longstanding cultural practices and understandings of gender roles, while others reflect far more pragmatic economic reasons relating to income generation and alleviating poverty. In some parts of the world, young girls and women are forced to marry in exchange for payment to their families, the cancellation of debt, to settle family disputes, or to secure another person’s entry into the country. In some societies, a woman can still be inherited by the brother of her deceased husband and forced marriages may occur when a rapist is permitted to escape criminal sanctions by marrying the victim, usually with the consent of her family. In countries with significant levels of conflict, women are abducted by armed groups and forced to marry fighters.

Of course, slavery does not spare men and boys. Men are more likely than women to be exploited by the state and in many industries such as agriculture, mining, and construction. While a focus on female victims should not come at the expense of male victims, who must also be supported and empowered, an understanding of the gender differences in victimisation can shed light on where prevention and victim identification efforts should start. Findings from the Global Estimates reflect highly gendered patterns of employment and migration that see more women than men employed in informal and unregulated sectors – areas of work where heightened vulnerability to abuse and exploitation has been well-documented.

The disparity begs the question: what makes women and girls more vulnerable to modern slavery? Our research points to the relevance of broader patterns of human rights abuses that disproportionately affect women and girls, including domestic and sexual violence and discriminatory beliefs and practices around access to property, education, and even citizenship. Globally, women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty and to report food insecurity. In turn, this impacts access to education with data revealing those living in poor households have higher rates of illiteracy, and of those, women in poor households are the most disadvantaged of all.5 Lack of education restricts employment opportunities for women and globally, women’s labour force participation is 31 percentage points below that of men.6 In light of this, it comes as no surprise that women have access to fewer economic resources than men, for example, they make up just 13 percent of agricultural landowners across the globe.7 Without access to education, better employment opportunities, and economic resources, women are at greater risk of of modern slavery.

Cultural practices and values, family structures, lack of autonomy, few employment opportunities, and access to education all play a part in creating risks that impact women and girls more than they do men and boys. When a decision is made to send a son to school and a daughter into the fields or to marry, their life outcomes diverge substantially. Although in many instances forced or child marriages are believed to be the best way to secure a daughter’s future, there are significant health consequences. Girls who are married young are at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, obstetric fistulas, and death during childbirth. Such marriages place women and girls at greater risk of being subjected to other forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and other forms of forced labour. For girls who are married young, education moves even further out of reach.

Unequal risk for men and women is not only the result of cultural practices and economic decision-making. Discriminatory legislative practices also exacerbate the disadvantaged position of women and girls; these include unequal inheritance rights, husbands having the legal right to prevent wives from working, no legal protection from domestic violence, exemption from prosecution for rapists if they are married to, or marry, their victim.8 The numerous gaps in legal protection for women and girls must be addressed to help break the cycle of inequality.

Fundamentally, modern slavery cannot be addressed in isolation. It is both a symptom and a cause, and in tackling other fundamental rights issues through the SDGs – eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation (SDG 5.2), eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilations (SDG 5.3), ending abuse, exploitation, and trafficking of children (SDG 16.2), and facilitating orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies (SDG 10.7) – we will reduce the vulnerability of women and girls to modern slavery. Small steps in the right direction are being taken in some regions. In the forced marriage space, raising community awareness on the dangers of forced marriage, human rights, and the importance of education for girls in bridging the inequality gap have shown some progress in combating modern slavery.9 Front-line organisations such as the Freedom Fund and their local partners have made significant inroads into addressing the slavery of women and girls by adopting a wraparound approach that tackles the root causes.10

At the heart of these issues lie traditions and systems that perpetuate and propagate the discrimination and exploitation of women. In his 2018 International Women’s Day address, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the push for gender equality is “…the unfinished business of our time.”11 In the wave of activism that has propelled the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns across the globe, there is no better time to tackle the root causes of vulnerability among women and girls.


1International Labour Organization (ILO) & Walk Free 2017, Methodology of the global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, ILO. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/ publications/WCMS_586127/lang–en/index.htm. [22 February 2018].

2Hyland, K 2016, ‘Britain must address the root causes of sex trafficking from Nigeria to Europe,’ The Guardian, 12 August. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/aug/12/britain-must-address-root-causes-sex-trafficking-nigeria-to-europe. [15 February 2018]. Attorney-General’s Department, Human Trafficking, Australian Government. Available from: https://www.ag.gov.au/CrimeAndCorruption/HumanTrafficking/Pages/default.aspx. [2 February 2018].
3Kafeero, S 2017, ‘How girls are trafficked to Middle East through Kenya,’ Daily Monitor, 8 January. Available from: http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/How-girls-are-trafficked-to-Middle-East-through-Kenya/688334-3509272-nd1yhr/index.html. [15 February 2018].
4Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons 2017, Trafficking in Persons Report: Belize Country Narrative, U.S. Department of State, p. 66. Available from: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/271341.pdf. [31 January 2018].
5UN Women 2018, Turning promises into action: gender equality in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, pp. 20-21. Available from: www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2018/sdg-report-gender-equality-in-the-2030-agenda-for-sustainable-development-2018-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5653. [19 March 2018].
6As above, p. 108.
7As above, p. 101.
8As above, p. 87.
9Bryant, K & Joudo, B [Forthcoming], What works? Lessons learned from interventions against forced and early marriage, Walk Free.
10Bailey C n.d., Her freedom, her voice: Insights from the Freedom Fund’s work with women and girls, The Freedom Fund. Available from: http://freedomfund.org/wp-content/uploads/FF_WOMENANDGIRLS.pdf. [19 March 2018]
11UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 2018 Message by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/events/womensday/sgmessage.shtml. [28 March 2018].