Approximately a quarter of the world’s population, two billion people, are currently living in conflict areas, in highly unsettled conditions that create vulnerabilities and risks of trafficking for women and girls. Recent research has revealed that human trafficking was present in 90 per cent of the 171 wars and conflicts that took place between 1989 and 2016. Additional crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change further exacerbate these risks, together with poverty and economic insecurity, displacement and lack of access to safe migration pathways, and exposure to multiple forms of gender-based violence.
Women and girls represent 65 per cent of all trafficking victims globally. More than 90 per cent of detected female victims are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Within months of the invasion of the Ukraine by the Russian Federation, global searches for Ukrainian women escort services had increased by 300 per cent. This demand incentivizes traffickers to recruit and exploit victims, increasingly using online platforms and tools. The shift in women’s and girls’ lives from the start of COVID-19 to go online for work, education, and social activities, has opened fresh opportunities for recruitment, control, and exploitation. But the increased use of technology has also created positive opportunities to investigate practices like deceptive job offers, to enhance prosecution with digital evidence, and to provide support services to survivors.
Women survivors provide vital insights into the design of preventive measures. Advice from groups such as the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC) inform all our reporting on this vital issue, as well as the work of the Interagency Working Group Against Trafficking. Shandra Woworuntu, the Chair of ISTAC, has underlined their strategic role: “Survivor leaders provide input on trafficking patterns used by traffickers, and increase the understanding and context of trafficking developments, while addressing the needs of survivors.”
Currently, awareness-raising campaigns are the primary focus area of work to prevent trafficking. With a clear understanding of the driving factors, we can pay the necessary attention to the gendered dimensions of vulnerability, including women’s economic inequality, challenging harmful masculinities, and changing norms that justify exploitation and abuse of women and girls.
Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality recognizes trafficking in women and girls as a form of violence against women that must be ended. There is much more that we can do to ensure that humanitarian responses adequately protect women’s rights and include anti-trafficking measures, crucially ensuring that those measures are led and informed by women survivors.
Immediate, practical measures are available to achieve the necessary change. Investing in education and community-based programming can address the demand that fosters sexual exploitation. The provision of safe and orderly migration options can remove a core component of a trafficker’s toolkit—the promise of migration. The Spotlight Initiative has been supporting safe migration and protection from different forms of violence for migrant women workers, including their use of mobile phones to enhance access to information on safe migration and services.
In view of the increasing role of technology in facilitating trafficking, partnerships with technology and social media companies can help governments to strengthen their detection and prevention efforts. They can also increase access to help and support for survivors. These needs include access to long-term, comprehensive reintegration support, including economic empowerment and psychological services.
Crises around the world are more than likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the years to come. We have tactics to prevent that rise from translating into increased exploitation. By implementing them, working in a concerted way internationally, together with survivors on prevention, detection, and response efforts, we can stop trafficking of women and girls around the world for good.