A Gendered Look at Trafficking in Persons

Publication Date: 
Fall 2008
Resource Origin: 

The issue of human trafficking is a gendered issue, with a particular context for women that is important to identify and address.  Gender is evident in how human trafficking is discussed, the sites of trafficking, and the legislation created by many countries aimed at stopping human trafficking.  In most countries around the world women experience sexism; women’s subordinate social, economic and political status creates additional vulnerabilities to violence and exploitation, including human trafficking. 

Women continue to battle sexist stereotypes that deem them readily available for domestic duties, caregiving and sex. 

Global demand for labour whose core component consists of “woman’s work” exceeds the supply of female citizens of affluent states willing to provide these services either as unpaid labour or for the wages and working conditions offered in the market. [1]

Women in many countries around the world carry the primary responsibility of providing care for their families and extended families.  While women have played almost no role in the decision making that has led to globalization, they have disproportionately borne the brunt of its consequences. In the globalized economy many public resources and services are privatized and people are displaced from their land, leaving families without their primary sources of income and little government assistance or support.  People are forced to travel,  sometimes ‘illegally’ and at great risk, to find work.  Often there is little or no protection against exploitation in the places they end up.  Racism and nationalism contribute to the vulnerability of racialized women in the labour market and their ability to receive protection from abuse and violence; including trafficking.

Increased poverty is forcing greater numbers of women worldwide to migrate in search of work.  Seeking economic opportunities abroad, women turn to a variety of resources, including newspaper ads, acquaintances, marriage agencies, labour recruiters and modelling agencies.  They accept positions as nannies, maids, sex workers, dancers, factory workers and hostesses. [2]

Without adequate labour protections in place, workers are vulnerable to debt-bondage, slavery like conditions, unsafe working conditions and sexual exploitation from employers or family members who may use sanctioned means to recruit cheap or free labour. 

Another area of human trafficking important to women in particular is how trafficking interventions are constructed.  Portrayal of human trafficking in the media is very gendered.  The stories we see are most often of young women lured by traffickers, sexually exploited and rescued by police or well-meaning social workers.  Women and child exploitation are almost always linked together, invoking sentiments of innocence, ignorance and lacking agency to make decisions.  This focus is apparent in many of the interventions to address trafficking by both government and non-government organizations.   These types of interventions often result in limiting women’s choices in where they will work and in what capacity.  Women migrating for work are under intense scrutiny as the terms “trafficked women” and “female migrant workers” have become almost mutually exclusive in the minds of policy makers, immigration officers and border agents. 

In the dominant trafficking discourse women are constructed as victims who are in need of rescue and without agency.  This construct is damaging to women as it reinforces women as passive and renders their resistance to gender inequality invisible.  The reality is that women are active agents in their choices, even though their choices may be limited by systemic and structural barriers.  They may be willingly or unwillingly moved, they may migrate for one job and may willingly or unwillingly take another, they may choose to leave an exploitative situation or they may choose to endure the situation with an end goal in sight, or they may be held captive and unable to make a choice to leave.  In a research study conducted on how Canadian courts, specifically immigration proceedings, responded to irregular migrant women in the sex trade, the data demonstrated that perceptions of “consent” were a factor in the determinations. [3]  Women who were perceived to have had consented to risky or criminal activity were unsuccessful in their appeals to remain in Canada on protected grounds.

Sites of Trafficking                                             

As noted in the previous sections, trafficking discourse has always included debates and discussion of sex work; so much so that the term human trafficking has been conflated with “the sex trade”.  This is especially problematic on several fronts and unfortunately serves to increase women’s vulnerability to harm through human trafficking.

Within this context, sex work is deemed as inherently exploitative and women working in the sex trade are portrayed as either women who don’t know any better, or as unwilling participants; victims without agency in either case.   This portrayal has led to a moral panic about sex work with trafficking as the primary means of capturing women in its net.  Many countries have laws that either criminalize prostitution or criminalize various acts in order to create barriers to working as a prostitute.  Other types of sex work while not criminalized under law, are rendered deviant and outside of normal society and therefore criminally suspect.  Women’s agency and their right to sexual self-determination and autonomy are policed and criminalized, limiting their ability to safely migrate for sex work.[4]  

Limiting women’s legitimate paths of migration has resulted in forcing women to find underground ways of travel for work, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and labour exploitation.  Many countries, including Canada are creating laws that deliberately target women working in the sex trade, including exotic dancers, to limit their entry into the country.[5]  The common rationalization is that countries can reduce trafficking by restricting women who would travel for this type of work.

The focus on the commercial sex trade as the primary if not only site of trafficking has rendered other sites invisible.  Women are trafficked for a variety of reasons including: industrial work, agriculture work, marriage, domestic work, commercial sex trade, internal organ harvesting and pan handling.  Women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation as a result of their trafficked status in any of these areas of work.  Women can be trafficked by organized crime gangs, independent organizers, employers, family members and friends.  A common scenario in Canada is a woman that is supported to emigrate by family members and promised education, work and financial support to build a better life, only to find herself forced to live indefinitely with her family member and provide complete domestic services including childcare for little or no money. In many of these cases physical abuse, threats, isolation and manipulation tactics are used to control the victim. 

Trafficking is a process that is not determined by the type of work the woman is doing, it is the exploitation of her labour through abuse that is the issue.  The United States Department of State report entitled “Trafficking in Persons Report” states that “more people fall victim to labour forms of trafficking than sex trafficking”.[6] (US State Department, 2008). The act of trafficking may take place at the beginning, middle or end of the process. [7](Sanghera, 2006 p 7).  For example, a woman may set out to work as a live-in caregiver and find work through a legitimate recruiting company.  An employer may use this company to hire domestic workers in from overseas and abuse them once they arrive.  This scenario does not become a trafficking scenario until the woman arrives at her workplace and is abused. 

The focus on sex work also severely limits both who is identified as a victim of trafficking and the resulting supports they can receive.  Trafficking has gained great attention in the general public through media such as movies and television shows and news accounts.  Most often the victims of trafficking are portrayed as women who have been kidnapped and held as sex slaves in a brothel.  Often the traffickers are portrayed as brown men who are part of an international or foreign gang – they are almost always immigrants to North America, and have “foreign accents”.   

These images not only further a racist perception of trafficking, it implies the capture of “an innocent” who is then forced to perform sex.  Women who have different experiences of migration and labour exploitation are not recognized as “true” victims of trafficking and their experiences of violence and oppression are rendered invisible. Women who are not victims of trafficking are designated as illegal immigrants and criminals.[8]  For all these reasons and more Canada must create complex strategies that address the exploitation of women through trafficking.


[1] Macklin, A. (2003). Dancing Across Borders: ‘Exotic Dancers,’ Trafficking, and Canadian Immigration Policy. InternationalMigration Review; Volume 37, Issue 2.  Retrieved 10/24/2007 from http://www.law.utoronto.ca/documents/Mackin/DancingAcrossBorders.doc

[2] Von Stuensee, V. (June 2000). Globalized, Wired, Sex Trafficking in Women and Children. Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law, Volume 7, Number 2.  Retrieved 10/24/2007, from http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v7n2/struensee72nf.html

[3] Bruckert, C. & Parent, C. (2004). Organized Crime and Human Trafficking in Canada: Tracing Perceptions and Discourses.  Retrieved November 11, 2007 from http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/PS64-1-2004E.pdf

[4] Kempadoo, K. (2205). From Moral Panic to Global Justice: Changing Perspectives on Trafficking. In Kempadoo, K., Sanghera, J., Pattanaik, B.(Eds.).  (2005). Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights.(pp vii-xxxiv). Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

[5] Fitzpatrick, M. (2007/05/16).  Federal government to crack down on immigrant strippers.  CanWest News Service.  Retrieved http://www.canada.com/components/print.aspx?id=e4ebc2e8-5e14-4bb6-aaf3-0d2027660

[6] The United States Department of State. (2008) Trafficking in Persons Report.  Retrieved August 8, 2008, from http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2008.

[7] Sanghera, J. (2005). Unpacking the Trafficking Discourse. In Kempadoo, K.,Sanghera, J., Pattanaik, B. (Eds.).  (2005). Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights. (pp 3 – 24). Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

[8] Bruckert, C. & Parent, C. (2004). Organized Crime and Human Trafficking in Canada: Tracing Perceptions and Discourses.  Retrieved November 11, 2007 from http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/PS64-1-2004E.pdf