Side event on "Gender Dimensions of Contemporary Forms of Slavery and Trafficking in Persons" (New York, 26 October 2018)

On 26 October, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights organised a side event on “Gender Dimensions of Contemporary Forms of Slavery and Trafficking in Persons”. The side event was moderated by Mr. Vinicius Pinheiro, Special Representative to the UN and Director of the ILO Office for the UN in New York.

The speakers at the event included:

  • Ms.Urmila Bhoola, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences
  • Ms. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children
  • Mr. Amol Mehra, Managing Director, North America/Freedom Fund
  • Mr. James Cockayne, Director, Centre for Policy Research at the UN University and Project Director, Delta 8.7
  • Ms. Krishanti Dharmaraj, Executive Director, Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

Ms. Bhoola mentioned some of the findings of her thematic report (A/73/139) which focuses on the gendered causes and consequences of contemporary forms of slavery. It also includes a mapping of the situation observed in specific economic sectors such as in agriculture, garment work, electronics manufacturing, accommodation and food services and domestic and care work. Some of these sectors are highly feminised, while in agriculture, for example, women often participate as part of family group and may be subjected to bonded labour and other forms of exploitation while they remain invisible as victims of contemporary forms of slavery. Ms. Bhoola noted that it is important to identify different forms of coercion which are often gendered in nature. The Special Rapporteur concluded that different forms of slavery are gendered in nature and that research can and must contribute to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking strategies.

In her intervention, Ms. Giammarinaro referred to her most recent report presented to the General Assembly (A/73/171) and noted that the human rights agenda and the Security Council’s women, peace and security agenda need to be linked. She also referred to the fact that in 2017, the Secretary-General recognized that trafficking in persons can amount to conflict-related sexual violence when committed in situations of conflict for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation. Ms. Giammarinaro concluded by highlighting that these linkages should also be recognized and addressed by the Security Council, as the common denominator is gender-specific exploitation.

Mr. Amol Mehra noted that the Freedom Fund intervenes globally in over 100 “hot spots” to address the root causes of contemporary forms of slavery. He mentioned that about 20 million women and girls are used and controlled for commercial or personal gain. Mr. Mehra mentioned that in many countries, the simple fact of being a female creates a risk of being exposed to slavery or servitude. Discrimination based on sex is interlinked with other forms of discrimination which are based on caste, origin, nationality and social and economic status, amongst others. Within this context, Mr.  Mehra provided the example of girls and young women working in Indian spinning mills under conditions of bonded labour. Mr. Mehra also shared some insights from the report "Her freedom, her voice, insights from the Freedom Fund’s work with women and girls" which provides some key lessons learnt: a). Broad awareness-raising campaigns are often not effective if they do not address the root causes of slavery. Even if women are aware of exploitative working conditions in countries of destination, they migrate. If, however, awareness raising is conducted with returning women who share their experience, it has proven to have a stronger preventive impact; b). The whole community needs to be engaged in the prevention and response to slavery, as exploitation is linked to existing vulnerabilities in communities. Female leaders need to play an active role in such community-wide processes; c). Building women’s and girl’s resistance to exploitation is key. The establishment of peer groups in hotspots, for example, has led to tangible results as it helps to collectively resist human rights violations; d). Recovery and reintegration: Raid and rescue operations can cause harm. Better alternatives are drop-in centers where women and girls can seek assistance. Mental health service provision is also essential and needs to be strengthened. Mr. Mehra concluded by stressing that a gendered understanding of slavery is key to enhance the effectiveness of prevention and response strategies.  

In his presentation, Mr. Cockayne stressed that in discussing the gender dimensions of modern slavery and human trafficking we are discussing power. He argued that there are two areas where our knowledge of the gendered power dynamics involved in modern slavery and human trafficking is growing. First, we have increasingly clear evidence and knowledge of the fact that modern slavery and human trafficking are generated by structural power inequalities in locations where governance and accountability break down – from migration centres to the bottom tiers of multi-level global value chains. Wherever our legal, economic, political and social systems displace risk down to the most vulnerable, modern slavery risk arises. Women and girls frequently occupy those positions. Second, we know an increasing amount about how external variables – natural disaster, conflict onset, financial vulnerability – can exacerbate these vulnerabilities. Again, these factors tend to amplify the structural vulnerabilities of women and girls. UNU’s work on data and evidence through Delta 8.7 – the Alliance 8.7 Knowledge Platform – and on the role of the financial sector in tackling contemporary forms of slavery and trafficking in persons – through the Liechtenstein Initiative for a Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking – both aim to tackle these challenges.. Mr Cockayne also noted that there are three areas where our knowledge may need to improve, if we are to address the gender dynamics of modern slavery and human trafficking. Firstly, to deepen the scientific understanding of which strategies currently work and which ones do not and for which reasons; secondly, to ensure that female agency and particularly survivor agency is placed at the heart of all relevant engagement and thirdly, that a more structural approach and analysis are applied including across sectors such as finance and trade which so far have not received enough attention. If the root cause of women and girls’ vulnerability is the way that our global financial, trading, migration and other structures load them with risk, then the solutions must be structural. We must think about how the global trade regime and global financial sector place these people at risk, and change that. And we must encourage policies and practice that focus not on their vulnerability, but their resilience – and supports and fosters it.

Ms. Dharmaraj opened her statement by noting that currently, two large systems exist: One is the economic system in which the market economy dominates and which has economic growth as its objective. The second is the peace and security system which aims at ensuring defense and security. According to the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), the two systems contribute to gender-based discrimination and create a negative, disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable ones. She also noted that in situations of insecurity, women are marginalized and as a consequence, face a risk of being exploited and/or trafficked. Ms. Dharmaraj also noted that solutions need to be found at both the local and the macro-level. In conclusion, she stressed four points: Firstly, the value of women and their work needs to increase in order to lower the risk of exploitation. To this end, women need to be involved in economic policies and leadership roles, she noted.  Secondly, social protection including for women needs to be ensured in order to decrease the risk of exploitation. The current economic system, however, does not provide for these guarantees. Thirdly, to strengthen preventive mechanisms, harassment and violence against women and men in the world of work need to stop. A new convention as currently promoted by the ILO could make a significant contribution in this regard. Lastly, the linkages between the peace and security agenda and the promotion of gender equality need to be reinforced due to the existing evidence that in situations of conflict and insecurity, women and girls face an increased risk of slavery and trafficking. Also, Ms. Dharmaraj concluded, the systematic inclusion of a gender perspective in the areas of labour, trade and human rights needs to be ensured including by increasing women’s leadership in trade unions.

In the interactive debate, the question of how to change behaviour was raised. Panellists noted that a paradigm shift is needed to avoid that women’s agency is constantly being questioned. Also, there were comments about the role of religious belief in increasing or decreasing gender inequalities. It was mentioned that some cultural practices have served to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes while at the same time, religious belief can empower women and girls to break out of such patterns.

In order to address gender inequalities which may lead to slavery or trafficking in persons, an investment in frontline leaders such as human rights defenders and in leaders from other sectors is key and power dynamics need to be inverted. Also, a stronger effort is needed in ensuring that comprehensive laws trickle down and have the desired impact in the lives of women, girls, men and boys.

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Mr. Tomoya Obokata
Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences
c/o Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations at Geneva
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