trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is a
high-profit, low-risk trade for those who organize it, but it is
detrimental to the millions of women and children exploited in
slavery-like conditions in the global sex industry. This trade, which UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called an outrage and a worldwide plague,
is conducted throughout the world with near impunity, in many cases
carrying penalties far less severe than drug trafficking.
Though people often associate it with Eastern Europe or Asia, there is
mounting evidence that the trafficking of women and children for sexual
exploitation, with its concomitant human rights abuses and health
consequences, is a significant problem in the Americas--one that promises
to worsen unless collective action is taken. This paper is an introduction
to trafficking in the Americas,
offering a brief discussion of relevant issues.
The first international agreement on the definition of trafficking is found in the 2000 UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime: "trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or 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 person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Trafficking Protocol, Article 3a). In this definition the term exploitation encompasses sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, servitude and removal of organs. However, this paper focuses on the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation, referring to the practice simply as trafficking or sex trafficking. The technical language can obscure the lives at the center of the issue--the millions of women and children preyed upon, abused, and prostituted in such appalling conditions that trafficking has been identified as a contemporary form of slavery.
trafficking is more than an issue of crime or migration; it is an issue of
human rights, a manifestation of persistent gender inequality and the
subordinate status of women globally. Around the world most trafficked
people are women and children of low socio-economic status, and the
primary trafficking flows are from developing countries to more affluent
Economic analyses of the “sex sector” belie the social context of
gender, racial and class inequalities in which this market is situated.
Sex trafficking is driven by a demand
for women’s and children’s bodies in the sex industry, fuelled by a supply of women denied equal rights and opportunities for education
and economic advancement, and perpetuated by traffickers who are able to
exploit human misfortune with near impunity.
aspect of sex trafficking remains the least visible. When demand is not
analyzed, or is mentioned rarely, it becomes easy to forget that people
are trafficked into the sex industry to satisfy not the demand of the
traffickers, but that of the purchasers, who are mostly men. The insatiable demand for women and children in massage
parlors, strip shows, escort services, brothels, pornography and street
prostitution is what makes the trafficking trade so lucrative.
Research in this area is sparse, but a few studies show that men’s reasons for buying sex include a desire for sex without commitment or emotional involvement; the perception that they can ask a prostitute to “do anything,” including acts they would hesitate to request from a regular partner; the belief, particularly among men without (or separated from) regular partners, that sex is necessary to their well-being--a basic need; and the feeling of power experienced in sexual encounters with prostitutes. While for some men involvement in prostitution may be motivated by sexual desire, for others it is an expression of misogyny and/or racism. “To see women and girls lined up in a brothel, numbered and available to any man who picks them is to see them dominated and humiliated, stripped of their power to ‘withhold’ the sexual access that such men imagine is so central to their own well-being” (Davidson 1996). The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) has described the expansion of sex trafficking as a backlash against the feminist movement. Agencies involved in sex tourism, marketing to Caucasian males, advertise Latin American women as dependent, erotic and sex-crazed—an alternative to the stereotype of the cold, Western, independent woman. Brazilian women, for example, are marketed as dark-skinned, easy and available, reinforcing racist and colonial stereotypes. The nature of male demand for commercial sex must be understood more fully in order to eliminate sex trafficking.
supply aspect of trafficking
is perhaps the most transparent. In
areas where poverty has already limited people’s choices, discrimination
against women in education, employment and wages can leave them with very
few options for supporting themselves and their families. Migration
through formal channels is not possible for many of these women. Dreaming
of a better life in the city, or a foreign country, they become vulnerable
to traffickers’ false promises of high-paying jobs.
Even though women might feel uneasy about the travel circumstances,
despair over their current prospects and hope for a new life can easily
outweigh any sense of danger. In this way poverty and gender inequality create a large pool
of potential and seemingly willing “recruits.”
addition to exploiting economic need, traffickers exploit the
vulnerability of women and children who have fled their homes because of
violence or have been displaced by armed conflict or natural disasters.
The psychological impact and social stigma of victimization can increase
women’s vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation by traffickers.
In Guatemala, for example, traffickers preyed on young girls raped in the
course of armed conflict, whose stigma as rape victims had damaged their
these dynamics of global demand and supply related to the sex industry,
traffickers ply their entrepreneurial skills. Though relatively little is
known about traffickers’ routes, networks, and associations with
organized crime in the Americas, one can easily understand the factors
that allow them to practice their trade with impunity.
International and domestic laws are lacking or insufficient; where laws do
exist, sentencing guidelines do not provide a deterrent. Corruption
contributes heavily to traffickers’ real and perceived impunity through
police and immigration officials who collude, accept bribes, or “turn a
blind eye.” Though governments may not promote trafficking directly,
they may be hesitant to take aggressive action against it, since the sex
industry is extremely profitable and linked to other sectors, such as
demand and impunity
together create a space in which trafficking can flourish (Figure 1). The
resulting environment allows high profits at low risk for the traffickers,
but with serious health risks and human rights violations for the victims.
The space is extremely difficult to see, much less describe and define,
because each facet of the triangle operates in a way that makes
trafficking more or less invisible to society.
The success of traffickers’ business relies on their ability to
keep activities hidden from law enforcement agencies.
Most information on crime rings is uncovered only when a
participant is caught and agrees to inform.
The end purchasers also prefer to remain invisible, themselves
engaged in activities that are largely criminal and considered deviant.
Finally, the circumstances of exploitation help keep the practice
invisible. Some victims are
forcibly imprisoned and unable to speak out, while others are silenced by
their fear of police and immigration officers, or retaliation from the
TRAFFICKING IN THE AMERICAS
in the Americas is less analyzed and understood than trafficking in other
regions of the world. Relatively little is known about who the victims
are, who the traffickers are, the routes and circumstances of trafficking,
and how trafficking in the Americas may or may not differ from trafficking
in other regions of the world. Current information comes from case
studies, the media, and law enforcement, government and NGO reports. In
the absence of hard statistical data, which is difficult to obtain for
illegal activities in general, an analysis must rely on estimates and
indicators associated with trafficking.
Available information indicates that, in the Americas, trafficking
is a problem of significant magnitude:
The volume of Latin American and Caribbean women in prostitution in
Europe, Japan and the USA implies the existence of sex trafficking. An
estimated 50,000 women from the Dominican Republic
and 75,000 women from Brazil
work abroad in the sex industry, mainly in Europe, though it is not clear
what proportion of this number refers to trafficking victims. Interpol
estimates that 35,000 women are trafficked out of Colombia each year.
The magnitude of child prostitution in the Americas is another
indicator of trafficking, as child prostitution often occurs under
circumstances that fit the definition of trafficking. Guatemala City
police report that 2,000 children are prostituted in over 600 brothels in
that city alone; Honduran and Salvadoran children have also been
discovered in prostitution in Guatemala, some orphans due to Hurricane
The NGO Casa Alianza estimates that 2,000 girls are prostituted in San
Jose, Costa Rica. Other estimates include
25,000 child prostitutes in the Dominican Republic,
and 500,000 girls prostituted in Brazil--many trafficked internally.
The increase in sex tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean also
indicates that trafficking in these areas is likely to increase. Casa
Alianza reports that adolescents from Colombia, the Dominican Republic and
the Philippines have been trafficked to Costa Rica for prostitution in
areas known as sex tour destinations.
While researching sex tourism in northeast Brazil, the organization O
CHAME has discovered connections between traffickers and the people who
arrange sex tours.
Not all traffickers are associated with organized crime groups, but
the involvement of organized crime in the trade seems to be increasing.
Organized crime groups from various regions of the world are involved in
trafficking women and children to North America.
The Directorate of Migration in the Dominican Republic estimates there are
400 smuggling and trafficking rings in the country, aided by the
availability of sophisticated and convincing false documents.
In 2000, Paraguayan authorities discovered a crime ring trafficking
women and girls to Argentina, promising work in domestic service but
forcing them into prostitution upon arrival.
TRAFFICKING AND HUMAN RIGHTS
conditions of sexual exploitation are what constitute violations of the
civil and human rights of so many trafficking victims. Regardless of how
they are recruited and transported, most women and children trafficked for
sexual exploitation are denied at some point the right to liberty,
the right not to be held in slavery or involuntary servitude,
the right to be free from cruel and inhumane treatment,
the right to be free from violence,
and the right to health.
understand the extent of human rights violations in trafficking, one needs
to look at how traffickers
exercise control. One major method is to restrict victims’ movement.
Survivors commonly report that traffickers confiscated their travel
documents during or after transport, sometimes selling them back for
This practice leaves the women in a vulnerable position, especially if
they did not enter the country legally. In some cases victims are
physically imprisoned in brothels or houses.
The confinement may be enforced through barred windows, locked
doors, posted guards and similar means.
Various survivors have described how they could only go outside if
a guard or boss was with them, and some reported that guards would monitor
their phone calls home.
also exert control by creating situations of dependence and debt bondage.
In a study of trafficking in the USA, a significant proportion of
survivors, law enforcement officials and social service providers reported
that trafficked women do not have control of their money.
Some women receive just a portion of the fee their purchasers pay the
brothel. An IOM study found that women from the Dominican Republic
trafficked to Greece were prostituted for three months without receiving
any money, and after that received only 25-30% of the revenue they brought
to the brothel.
Traffickers usually charge a transportation fee, informing the victims
upon arrival that they must pay the fee through prostitution of some kind.
Debt bondage occurs when the traffickers do not allow the women to
leave prostitution until the debt is paid; in many cases the original
transportation fee is augmented by charges for room and board, or
punishment fines. Receiving little or no money, and increasingly indebted,
it is difficult for the women to escape debt bondage. The situation leads to dependence on traffickers for money,
food, clothes and other necessities.
the testimonies of victims it is clear that traffickers commonly use
violence and threats of violence as means of initiation, intimidation,
punishment, and control. In a study of sex trafficking in the USA, the
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) found that 73% (n =37) of
interviewees had been physically abused at least once by traffickers
Physical assault and rape are used to initiate women into the sex
industry, to force compliance. Survivors report being beaten or raped as
punishment for refusing customers, complaining, attempting to escape, or
purely for the gratification of the trafficker or pimp.
The constant threat, experience and witnessing of violence can condition
women to submit to trafficker demands, as a strategy of self-preservation.
Women’s descriptions of the abuse and its effects bear similarities to
battered women’s descriptions of domestic violence, particularly the
experience of living in a state of constant vigilance, trauma and fear.
TRAFFICKING AND HEALTH
trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is accompanied
by potentially lifelong and/or life-threatening health consequences; it
prevents victims from attaining the highest possible level of physical,
mental and social well-being. Victims’ health is affected by the
trafficking process itself and also by sexual exploitation. Clandestine
migration often requires sub-optimal means of transportation, putting the
victims at risk for starvation, drowning, suffocation and exposure to the
Numerous reports of accidents and deaths have caused the International
Organization for Migration to identify trafficking as the most dangerous
form of migration. Other health risks in
transit include exposure to violence and communicable diseases.
victims trafficked into the sex industry, the environment of sexual
exploitation introduces further health risks. Little scientific
investigation of the health of trafficking victims has been conducted,
perhaps because the population is difficult to access. Some information
comes from health care workers and NGOs who work with trafficking victims.
To supplement this knowledge, the general health risks of prostitution can
be used as an approximation of those faced by women and children
trafficked into the sex industry. However, knowledge of these risks comes
from samples drawn from prostitutes working on the street or visiting
health clinics. Since trafficking victims are often not free to leave the
brothel or visit health clinics, the conclusions of these studies may not
fully represent the experiences of trafficking victims.
victims experience violence by traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, clients and police.
They are beaten, sometimes with weapons, and severely enough to require
emergency room visits.
They are raped as an introduction to “the business.”
Women can also be injured during rough sex; women in prostitution
report that clients ask them to simulate acts seen in pornography, which
are frequently violent, and some men choose commercial sex so that they
can commit acts they would not ask their own partner to participate in.
The consequences of psychological, physical and sexual violence associated
with trafficking and sexual exploitation include depression, suicidal
thoughts and attempts, and physical injuries such as bruises, broken
bones, head wounds, stab wounds, mouth and teeth injuries, and even death.
in the sex industry is a risk factor for HIV/AIDS
infections. This risk can
be mediated or worsened by client volume and patterns of condom use.
Trafficking victims without access to condoms, or who lack the power to
negotiate their use, are particularly at risk. Cuts and tears in vaginal
and anal tissue due to rough sex and rape further compound the risk, as
does victims’ increased vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases,
of trafficking experiences and studies of women in the sex industry
suggest that trafficking victims experience many threats to their sexual
and reproductive health. Sexually
transmitted infections (STIs) are a serious threat.
Early sexual activity and multiple partners are both risk factors
for STIs that apply to many women in the sex industry. Several studies
have found that the prevalence of STIs is higher among women in
prostitution than in the general population.
For example, 60.8% of 997 female prostitutes in Mexico City were
seropositive for Herpes simplex virus 2, compared to a prevalence of 29.3%
in a sample of women not involved in prostitution.
Not only are trafficking victims at risk of contracting STIs
through their circumstances of sexual exploitation, they also are more
likely to suffer complications from the infections.
Untreated bacterial STIs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, can
result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) if the bacteria invade
internal reproductive organs. PID can be asymptomatic or accompanied by
mild and nonspecific symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose even if a
woman can get to a health care provider.
Without treatment, PID can cause severe and permanent damage,
including chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.
The risk of these complications increases with multiple episodes of
Trafficking victims may also be at an increased risk for cervical cancer,
because they are exposed to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
risk of unwanted pregnancy depends on access to contraceptives and control over
their use. Major pregnancy-related concerns are unsafe abortion and lack
of access to prenatal care. Victims
have reported forced pregnancies and forced abortions at the insistence of
traffickers. However, trafficking for
sexual exploitation has sexual
health implications that reach far beyond pregnancy and infections.
Considering the betrayal, violence and exploitation involved in
trafficking, survivors may find it difficult to form meaningful, healthy
relationships upon their return to “normal” life.
factors associated with trafficking (e.g. violence, isolation, betrayal)
can have damaging effects on victims’ mental
health. These conditions
can provoke feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and low self-esteem.
Depression and suicidal thoughts/attempts are reported by victims. Substance
abuse is a common coping mechanism in the sex industry. Some
trafficking survivors report being drugged by brothel owners, to keep them
more compliant. In addition to the risk of chemical addiction, substance
abuse also has implications for sexual health, as it is associated with
The long-term effect of trafficking on survivors’ human development and
emotional health needs further exploration.
factors suggest that trafficked women and children, with such serious and
complicated health needs, have little or no access
to health care or other social services. Where services are available,
trafficking victims face almost limitless barriers to accessing them. Some
are not allowed to leave the brothel, even to seek health care.
For those free to come and go, lack of information about services,
language barriers, and fear of discovery and deportation can all hinder
their access to care. Trafficking victims may not be able to afford
services, and they are unlikely to have access to health insurance. Even
if they overcome these formidable barriers, there is the possibility they
won’t receive the care they need. As is often the case with women who
are victims of domestic abuse, health care providers may not be trained to
identify possible trafficking victims.
If the provider is unaware of the patients circumstances and
involvement in the sex industry, she is likely to overlook the full extent
of the patients’ reproductive, sexual and mental health needs.
exploitation is particularly damaging to the health of children.
They are even more likely than adults to lack accurate information
about the transmission and prevention of sexually-transmitted infections,
including HIV/AIDS. Even with good information, children may lack the
skills, power and ability to negotiate condom use, increasing their risk
of infection. Girls are especially vulnerable to sexually transmitted
infections due to their immature reproductive tracts, and they are more likely to suffer long term damage from
them. In addition to the elevated risk of HIV and other STIs, the
traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness and stigmatization
involved in sexual exploitation are damaging to child and adolescent
development. This can lead to
an impaired ability to form attachments and succeed with interpersonal
relationships, or to various types of psychiatric morbidity.
Children are likely to experience the health and developmental
effects of sexual exploitation well into adulthood.
is clear that trafficking victims’ health is significantly endangered,
but intervention is difficult with such a hidden population.
Health care providers and NGOs must find a way to assist not only
survivors, who have escaped or been freed, but also women and children
still trapped in situations of exploitation.
The World Health Organization is currently conducting an in-house
review to identify possible courses of action and draw recommendations for
addressing the health consequences of trafficking.
1949 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the
Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others criminalizes sex
trafficking and acts associated with prostitution, but with weak
enforcement mechanisms and adoption by only 69 countries, it has not been
effective. The convention also fails to address forms of exploitation
that were not widespread in 1949, including mail-order bride industries,
sex tourism and trafficking of organs.
Article 6 of the UN Convention on
the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW
1979) requires States Parties to take action to suppress “all forms of
traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women,” and CEDAW’s
General Recommendation No. 19 specifically mentions newer forms of
exploitation neglected in the 1949 convention.
The 2000 UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime provides a tool
for international cooperation against trafficking in its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons,
Especially Women and Children. The protocol specifies criminalization,
stronger border controls, and increased security and control of documents
as preventive mechanisms. It
focuses on international cooperation to combat trafficking and details
aspects of assistance and protection for victims. In May 2001 the protocol
had been signed by 85 countries; thirty-five additional signatures are
needed for the protocol to become an instrument of international law.
The UN Global Programme against Trafficking in Human Beings is conducting
several technical cooperation projects based on implementation of the
Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication
of Violence Against Women—“Convention of Belém do Pará” (1994)
explicitly names trafficking in persons and forced prostitution as forms
of violence against women. As
such, States Parties to the convention are called upon to condemn
trafficking and pursue policies to prevent, punish and eradicate it.
instruments specifically addressing the trafficking of children include
the ILO Convention 182 Concerning
the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst
Forms of Child Labor (1999), and the UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child (1989) and its Optional
Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography
(2000). Some countries have targeted the exploitation of children in
sex tourism, adopting laws that allow for the prosecution of sex crimes
against children committed in another country, regardless of that country’s
laws. Laws of this type are designed not only to punish the commercial
sexual exploitation of children overseas, but also to deter sex tourists
who become situational child abusers due to a perception that the sexual
exploitation of children is acceptable in some other cultures.
handful of countries in the region have laws that specifically prohibit
trafficking. Most have a
variety of laws under which traffickers could be punished, including
facilitating entry or exit from the country for prostitution and sundry
laws against pimping.
Considering the evidence of growth in trafficking, it appears that
existing laws and/or their enforcement are inadequate. Advocates of legal
reform have emphasized a three-pronged approach of prevention of
trafficking, prosecution of traffickers and protection for victims. The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 outlines
minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking: the prohibition of trafficking; punishment of trafficking
commensurate with that of other grave crimes, such as forcible sexual
assault; punishment stringent enough to provide a deterrent; and “serious
and sustained efforts” by governments to eradicate trafficking.
legal status of trafficking victims too often renders them even more
vulnerable; legal protection of victims is of paramount importance. Where
prostitution is prohibited, victims can be viewed and treated as
criminals, rather than crime victims. Victims of international trafficking
frequently are illegal aliens and face the dilemma that if they escape to
seek help, they may be arrested and deported. Though in desperate need of
medical care, counseling and sometimes drug treatment, victims’ legal
status can prevent them from accessing these services. There must be
avenues for victims to seek redress and restitution without risk of
further human rights violations.
IS BEING DONE?
Inter-American Children’s Institute (IACI) of the Organization of
American States has made a significant contribution to research by
publishing the first comprehensive analysis of child sexual exploitation
in the Americas: Violencia
y Explotación Sexual contra Niños y Niñas en América Latina y el
Caribe (1999). Currently the Inter-American Commission of Women
(Organization of American States) is collaborating with IACI and the
International Human Rights Law Institute (DePaul University) to undertake
an intensive investigation of sex trafficking in the Americas. A priority
of The Study of the Trafficking of Women and Children for Sexual
Exploitation in the Americas is to standardize criteria, terminology,
and definitions. The first step in this direction is to obtain and analyze
data that more fully address the scope and nature of the problem in the
Americas. The initial phase of the project will investigate trafficking in
14 countries in the region from a social, legal, economic and political
perspective. Counterpart organizations will be chosen in each country to
assist with data collection; to ensure that research is as nonpolitical
and unbiased as possible, these will be non-governmental organizations.
The study results will be used to develop a draft for an Inter-American
Convention that will permit regional cooperation to prevent and eradicate
the trafficking of persons in general and of women and children in
address the inadequacy of existing legislation and law enforcement, to
acknowledge the seriousness of human trafficking, and to provide
protection for victims, the United States has adopted the U.S.
Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
The law takes the three-pronged approach of preventing
trafficking, punishing traffickers and protecting/assisting victims.
Punishment and prosecution for trafficking-related offenses are
strengthened under the penal code for peonage and slavery. Victims in U.S.
custody are granted status as crime victims, not criminals, and are
guaranteed medical care and other appropriate services, appropriate
facilities for detainment, access to information about their rights, and
protection if their safety is in danger or they are at risk of recapture.
Victims can apply for a Category T visa, which allows them to remain in
the U.S. legally, with nonimmigrant status, for three years and makes them
eligible for employment and benefits. No more than 5,000 victims may be
provided visas or nonimmigrant status in any fiscal year. Finally, the law
specifies minimum standards for trafficking prevention (mentioned above);
countries receiving economic and security assistance must demonstrate
compliance with the minimum standards, or sincere and sustained effort at
moving towards them, in order to receive further assistance.
The law contains provisions for sanctions against nations deemed
insufficiently active in trafficking prevention.
the law is recent, assessing its efficacy is difficult. The law’s power
to punish and deter traffickers will depend on law enforcement and
investigative procedures. The guarantee of victim assistance is
encouraging, as are the corresponding appropriations, though there are
gaps to be addressed in that area. Some services do exist, but services
designed specifically to meet the needs of trafficking victims are also
needed. The State Department’s first annual report on trafficking
appeared in July 2001.
It identifies eighty-two countries with “significant numbers” of
trafficking victims, defining "significant numbers" as reports
of numbers in the hundreds or higher. Twelve of these countries are
considered in compliance with the minimum standards, forty-seven are
considered to be making significant efforts to comply, and twenty-three
are considered to be doing too little.
© 2007 Organization of American States.