Human Trafficking

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Human Trafficking







According to the United Nations (2002):

Trafficking in human beings is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipts of persons, by means of threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another, for the purpose of exploitation.

In short, human trafficking is the recruitment and transportation of persons through coercion, deception, or some other form of illicit influence.

The main reasons behind human trafficking are labor and sexual exploitation. Labor and sexual exploitation, however, are intertwined and in many cases proceed simultaneously. Each year, millions of women, children, and men, especially from developing nations, are trafficked within and across national boundaries to serve as bonded labor, domestic workers, farmworkers, and sex workers. Kathryn Farr (2005) reports that about 27 million people around the world live under some form of slavery. Most are women trafficked for prostitution. For example, about 35,000 women from Columbia, 25,000 women from Bangladesh, and 500,000 women from the former Soviet states have been trafficked and sold into prostitution in different countries. The trafficking of Nepali girls and women in Indian brothels has been considered the most intensive sexual slave trade anywhere in the world (Hynes and Raymond 2002). Trafficked women have become the new slaves of the global economy.

The trafficking of children has also become a major social problem. Children are trafficked around the world mainly for labor and sexual exploitation. They work in homes, farms, factories, carpet factories, sweatshops, restaurants, construction sites, and the sex and tourist industries. Conditions can include debt bondage. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are about 2# million working children ages five through fourteen. About 120 million children are working full-time in hazardous and exploitative types of work (Palley 2002). Trafficking has become one of the fastest growing crimes and generates up to $7 billion annually (Widgen 1994).


The exploitation of women is often rooted in imperialism and colonialism. Political, economic, and sexual exploitation of the weak and powerless, who are often people of the previously colonized and developing nations, continue today on a worldwide scale. During imperial and colonial expansion, whether in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, or Australia, colonizers extracted huge profits by exploiting and commodifying women. Women’s sexuality and labor became a means to appropriate economic, political, and social gain for colonizers. By purchasing, hiring, and selling women, the colonizers made these women transferable commodities to be used and reused, sold and resold.

Kamala Kempadoo (2004) reports that during the colonial invasion of the Caribbean, “slave women were frequently hired out by white and free colored families as nannies, nurses, cooks, washerwomen, hucksters, seamstresses, yet the general expectation of individuals who hired female labor under whatever pretense was that sexual benefits were included” (p. 53). Kempadoo further reports that “concubines served as both mistresses and housekeepers and were sometimes hired out by their owners to sexually service other men in order to obtain cash” (p. 53). To rationalize such practices, these women were blamed for being sexually available and promiscuous. Referring to the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery in the United States, bell hooks (1981) states: “The use of the word prostitution to describe mass sexual exploitation of enslaved black women by white men not only deflected attention away from the prevalence of forced sexual assault, it lent further credibility to the myth that black females were inherently wanton and therefore responsible for rape” (p. 34).

Under slavery, African women in the United States were subject to bondage labor, captive slavery and prostitution, and breeding labor; they lived a barbaric slave life. The colonial white owners controlled their labor and bodies. Forced sex, rape, and brutal torturing and floggings of women’s naked bodies were a common practice by white male slave owners. By coerced mating and oppressive massive breeding, slave women’s bodies became machines to produce and reproduce slave labor. State agencies fostered racial and gendered violence through various discriminatory laws. Dorothy Roberts (1997) reports that “the law reinforced the sexual exploitation of slave women in two ways; it deemed any child who resulted from the rape to be a slave and it failed to recognize the rape of a slave woman as a crime” (p. 29).

Social, economic, and sexual exploitation and oppression of slave women in the United States is rooted in a white supremacist colonial patriarchal culture and ideology. As hooks (1981) points out, “Colonial white men expressed their fear and hatred of womanhood by institutionalizing sexist oppression” (p. 31). Slave women were forced to adapt to mainstream oppressive gender roles and relations defined and introduced by the colonial patriarch. Slave women were thus oppressed and exploited by a double-edged sword—their race and their gender.

Similarly, various anthropological studies illustrate the ways in which women became concubines, prostitutes, and entertainers after the colonial invasion in Australia. Eleanor Leacock and Mona Etienne (1980) report that the “history of relations between colonizers and aboriginal Australians meant that women’s sexual freedom became transformed into its opposition: prostitution” (p. 11). The colonizers and those in authority had turned women’s bodies and sexuality into a site for deriving sexual pleasure and economic profit.


Cases from different parts of the world also show ways in which war, political violence, and expansion of military bases have exacerbated various forms of gender-based violence—particularly sexual exploitation. Any kind of war, whether political, civil, or ethnic, and expansion of army bases and processes of militarization have fostered the sex trade and forced prostitution, with young girls and women as primary targets. Being a displaced refugee makes girls, women, and children even more vulnerable for sexual exploitation. War and conflict in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, eastern Europe, and Africa have witnessed such sexual exploitation and political violence.

Trafficking, sexual exploitation, and gendered violence are also rooted in the low status and positions of girls and women. In addition, those who are already marginalized in society because of their low socioeconomic status, demographic characteristics, and culture and political location are more susceptible to being trafficked and sexually exploited. In caste-based societies such as India and Nepal, the poor, indigenous, low-caste ethnic minorities and uneducated girls and women are more likely to become victims of sexual labor exploitation. For example, in Nepal, under the “Deukis system,” wealthy families buy young girls to offer to temple idols. These girls are forbidden to marry, and without alternative livelihoods, they are forced into prostitution. Similar to the Deukis system, under the “Devadasi system” in India, young girls are offered as gifts to various deities. Unable to earn their livelihood by the donations and gifts from their patrons and other visitors, the girls are compelled to sell their sex. Girls and women of the Badi community, the lowest caste in Nepal, traditionally earned

their livelihood by singing and dancing. Because of economic factors, they were later pushed into prostitution.

Such cases suggest how state agencies and cultural practices through various religious and other institutions control women’s labor and sexuality. Additionally, the cases indicate how some traditional practices have increased women’s vulnerability to sexual labor exploitation.


The processes of industrialization and modernization have also facilitated trafficking. The industrializing nations of Asia and Latin America have created conditions that brought a massive number of rural women and children into low-paying, labor-intensive manufacturing jobs in the cities. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, persistent poverty and debt have compelled many parents to sell their daughters and children. Many of these parents, however, do not know that their children are then tricked and lured into the sex trade. Customers’ preference for virgins and the fear of AIDS have also accelerated the number of children and young girls forced into sex trafficking. UNICEF reports that there are at least a million child prostitutes in Asia alone, with the highest numbers present in India, followed by Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines (Banerjee 2002).

Industrial manufacturing jobs and a factory-based work culture provide favorable conditions for labor and sexual exploitation. Even those women and children who join manufacturing work voluntarily face long working hours and deteriorating working conditions, and they are subjected to sexual harassment, rape, and different forms of sexual violence and exploitation by owners and overseers.


The processes of globalization, global restructuring, and global capital accumulation have intensified sex trafficking and the exploitation of sexual labor. The trafficking of women and children, particularly girls, for the sex trade is now rampant in the global economy. Global capital expansion, neoliberal policies, open borders, structural adjustment programs, internal and international migration, transnational networks, globalization of communications and different modes of communications that facilitate international arranged marriage, mail-order brides, and the marketing of women and children in sex tourism have fueled the trafficking and sex trade industry. As Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema (1998) put it, “Sexual labor today forms a primary source for profit and wealth, and it is a constituent part of national economies and transnational industries within the global capitalist economy” (p. 8).

Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that have been imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the developing nations have become key features of global restructuring. Under SAPs, poor countries are pressured to privatize their state-owned enterprises, liberalize domestic markets, remove trade barriers, encourage foreign investment, and prioritize export-oriented manufacturing. A huge cut in state-owned health care and education; open borders; free flow of labor, capital, and commodities; and a highly competitive international market economy have exacerbated various social, economic, and global problems. After the privatization of public sectors, prices doubled for public goods and services in areas such as education, transportation, health care, telecommunications, drinking water, and electricity. Under trade liberalization, protection is removed from local industries. This negatively affects cottage, handicraft, and small and labor-intensive manufacturing industries, all of which depend on a large unskilled and semiskilled labor force.

Although the main goal of SAPs is that goods and services should be produced where they can be made most efficiently at the lowest cost, with nations increasing their prosperity by mutually opening their trade and markets, it has not worked out that way. By eroding national markets and industries, global restructuring has displaced many people, particularly women and children, from their work and livelihoods. These women and children, who are the most vulnerable of the labor force, then become primary targets for sex trafficking and the sex trade. For example, millions of women and children in Bangladesh have lost their work in the textile industry when work was moved to China, where production costs were lower. This pushed many women and children into the sex industry.

By allowing free competition, open markets, free enterprise, and deregulated labor markets, economic restructuring has on the one hand led to poverty, unemployment, risk, and social, economic, and political inequality, and on the other hand to the insecurity of low-paying jobs in the informal economic sectors. This duality has affected poor women and children the most, as they are now the preferred labor of informal economic sectors and constitute the largest labor force in the service sector. This has simultaneously accelerated the feminization of migration and of the labor force, as well as trafficking and the sex trade. In the service sector particularly, the demand for female labor has been greatest in domestic work, tourism, and the sex industry.

Interregional and international labor migration provides a route and a context for sex trafficking. As poor women and children from deprived regions seek employment in cities or foreign nations, they become more vulnerable to sex trafficking. Trafficking of girls and women, particularly in South Asia, occurs en route from rural to urban areas within the country and en route from one country to another. Shobha Hamal-Gurung (2003) notes the linkage between factory work, migration, and sex trafficking; and reports that sex trafficking of girls and women in Indian brothels occurred mainly in two ways: during the migration process—en route to destined employment cities and from the carpet factories where these girls and women worked.

By providing loans with high interest rates, SAPs push poor countries into becoming debt-ridden. Since women have become the ideal labor force of the global economy, many industrializing, debt-ridden nations then encourage their female citizens to migrate and become transnational workers in order to stabilize and boost their economies with the remittances they send back home. Transnational female labor migrants are more likely to be trafficked or subjected to economic and sexual exploitation in foreign lands, particularly if they are brought into the country illegally or if they become illegal aliens later.

The process of globalization and global restructuring has created a market for the sex industry in which millions of innocent women and children are turned into economic and sexual commodities, thereby becoming the new slaves of globalization. According to Goodwin (2003), quoting a UN spokesman, “Slavery is one of the most undesirable consequences of globalization” (p. 499).

Although a matter of choice for some, sex work is not a matter of choice for the majority of women and children who migrate to urban areas in search of wage work and a better life. It is not a matter of choice for the majority of women and children who are deceived by false jobs in urban or global cities and who are then smuggled during the internal and international migration process. Victims of trafficking and the sex trade are brought into the industry in various ways. They are often lured away from their country by recruiters who promise them high-paying jobs in a foreign country. They are either brought illegally or upon their arrival their passports and other legal documents are seized by the recruiter or pimp. The willingness to migrate in search of livelihood, legally or illegally, results in favorable conditions for traffickers and an impetus to trafficking. Consequently, these women and children become extremely vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. Because of their legal status, language and cultural barriers, and fear of the police and government authorities, these women and children are trapped—forced and coerced to become sex workers. Fear of deportation also makes them vulnerable to abuse. Even if they manage to escape, they may encounter trouble with the law and authorities, and they may end up in jail, where they may face another cycle of sexual violence.

The tourist industry in Southeast Asia is intertwined with the sex trade that brings billions of dollars annually. The Thai government, for example, promotes sexual tourism through advertising stating that “the only fruit sweeter than durian [a local fruit] is Thai women,” according to Richard Poulin (2003, p. 38), citing David Hechler. No doubt the sex industry now flourishes with the interplay of the domestic and international political economic system. Cynthia Enloe (1989) states that the sex industry “requires Third World Women to be economically desperate to enter prostitution” and makes them dependent “on an alliance between local governments in search of foreign currency and local and foreign businessmen willing to invest in sexualized travel” (pp. 36–37).

The rampant, ever growing global sex industry is also analyzed within the demand and supply model in which the receiving countries with large sex industries create a demand for female bodies. On the demand side also are significant numbers of men with social, economic, and political power. The industry exists because those in power—the state, government, the political and economic systems, industrial capitalists, and patriarchy— hegemonize it and reap the profits. The majority of poor women and ethnic minorities from the industrializing nations or nations facing political and economic crises constitute the supply side, while businessmen and patriarchs, particularly from the rich nations, constitute the demand side. Women as a commodity serve the demand of those who can purchase them. Globalization has no doubt provided multiple sites and multiple agencies to operate and foster the transnational sex trade. H. Patricia Hynes and Janice G. Raymond (2002) report:

In what becomes a predacious cycle, the growth of the transnational sex industry—with its unique profit potential from the reuse and resale of women, compared to the one-time sale of drugs and weapons—entices governments facing economic crisis to promote women for export within the global sex trade industry in order to attract a flow of remittance back to the sending country; or to directly and indirectly promote local sex industries to bring money into the country. (p. 205)


Historical factors, larger structural forces, the processes of global capital accumulation, sociocultural and political-economic factors, and the politics of race, class, gender, nationality, and citizenship are important when analyzing the nature, pattern, process, and victims of contemporary human trafficking.

Although in general the majority of slaves in the global economy are children and women, these children and women can also be described as members of a particular race, ethnicity, and class, and as nationals of particular Third World countries. Until the collapse of the former Soviet states, the majority of trafficked girls and women were from Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean nations, whose black, brown, and gold skin tone made them exotic and desirable to others in the global sex trade. The increasing numbers of Natashas (female sex workers from the former Soviet states) and other white women into the sex trafficking and sex trade, however, illustrates the historical overrepresentation of women in such practices.

Although patriarchal entrepreneurs extract profit from the labor of women and children, they often rationalize their interest and behavior by arguing that they are helping to alleviate poverty. The majority of enslaved sex workers who provide bondage labor are subjugated, exploited, and commodified not only because they are women but also because they are poor and typically members of racial-ethnic minority groups in their countries. As Hynes and Raymond (2002) put it, “The fact that it took blond and blue-eyed victims to draw governmental and public attention to trafficking in the United States gives the appearance, at least, of racism” (p. 200). The inclusion of white women into the sex trade, nonetheless, helps us to see the racialized gendered aspect of human trafficking and the sex industry.

The processes of colonialism, industrialization, and globalization have eroded women’s positions and status. Whether in the poorest developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, or in the cities of the richest and most developed nations, young girls’ and women’s labor and sexuality as a commodity has been colonized, subjugated, and globalized across continents, nations, and regions. What is common between the colonial expansion, industrialization, and globalization is that in all of these phases, women’s labor and sexuality are highly commodified and exploited. This continuation of global colonialism and imperialism reflect a series of unequal power relations and hierarchical power structures in which poor girls and women in general, and poor girls and women of color in particular, are located at the bottom of global power structures.

SEE ALSO Body Politics; Gender Ideology; Illegal Alien; Poverty; Rape; Sex Work; Sexuality; Violence against Women and Girls.


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Shobha Hamal Gurung

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Human Trafficking

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