This article is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to combat human trafficking. modern slave trade and slavery. This article was written by Laura Gauer Bermudez, Director of Evidence and Learning at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery; Yuki Lo, research and evaluation manager at the Freedom Fund; and Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, COO and Head of Global Research at Walk Free.
Women and girls make up an astonishing 71 percent of the 40.3 million people living in modern slavery, and the problem can get worse. The deep roots of gender discrimination and the pandemic’s disproportionate social and economic damage to women increase their vulnerability and exploitation. Their risk of modern slavery is inextricably linked to gender inequality, as noted in Walk Free’s Stacked odds report.
Women and women’s rights
If we are to tackle modern slavery on a large scale, we must also address the gender inequalities and power imbalances that perpetuate it. One of the entry points is the creation of the Economic Agency for Women and Girls. Significant evidence suggests that when women have greater decision-making power and capacity for action over their own economic resources, positive benefits spill over into all societies. These benefits are significant and help advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and prevent modern slavery. So what is the economic agency, how is it related to modern slavery and what interventions should be prioritized to maximize gains?
Economic agency can be defined as having the power and choice over how a person earns, saves, manages and spends their money – a seemingly simple concept but one that is not available to millions of people around the world. For those who are victims of human trafficking, forced and bonded labor, forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation, the freedom to choose has been denied. Labor is extracted involuntarily, debt bondage has appropriated ultimate control over a worker, marriage is arranged without consent, and sex is a traded commodity ruled by a third party. At the center of these scenarios are individuals whose power to act has been strategically minimized, guaranteeing them limited control over their situation, including their livelihoods and income.
The link between economic agency and modern slavery was highlighted in the recently released report by the United Nations University (UNU). Develop freedom, who argues that an economic agency lens would help tie concerns about modern slavery into broader development agendas. This link reinforces the work of development economist Amartya Sen, who argues that development should not be viewed only through the lens of GDP, but should also be measured in terms of opportunity and freedom of choice. In his book Development as freedom, Sen advocates for the use of economic, social and political freedoms as indicators of successful development. In Sen’s vision, development does not come at the expense of human rights and freedoms; on the contrary, these rights and freedoms are an integral part of development.
Modern slavery is the explicit restriction of an individual’s rights and freedoms, and this restriction currently affects women and girls at a higher rate than men and boys. This is largely due to entrenched gender norms that continue to place women and girls in a position of diminished power. Discriminatory laws and social customs can prevent women from inheriting land and property, opening bank accounts without a male signatory, accessing loans, holding identity documents, freely traveling and work without their spouse’s permission. This power dynamic offers women fewer formal employment opportunities and directs them to unpaid or low-paying jobs, much of which is in unregulated or poorly regulated sectors, such as domestic work, care. residential, work in garment and textile factories, hospitality and cleaning. services, among others.
Gender discrimination and lack of autonomy affect a girl from birth. In some communities, decisions about how long to go to school, who to marry and how to earn a living are made for adolescent girls and young women, not by them. Based on a prejudiced belief that women have limited economic value, every decision made for her, throughout her life, further limits her ability to gain economic independence (Figure 1).
Women and women’s rights
To disrupt this discriminatory system, we must recognize and transform the power imbalances that devalue and exploit the contribution of women and girls to our economy and our society. This may sound like an ambitious goal, but there are specific gender-focused interventions that can improve economic agency and greater empowerment of women and girls around the world. These interventions can advance the SDGs while simultaneously and substantially reducing modern slavery:
- Remove legal and procedural barriers so that women and girls can claim the protection and rights they are entitled to, including an equal right to hold identity documents, own property, and access basic health care and education. Lack of birth registration certificates and other identification documents often limit the ability of women and girls to access protective rights, such as cash assistance, vouchers, grants, and fee waivers. Access to social insurance and the formal financial system often depends on these identification documents, making them a necessary first step in strengthening the economic agency of women and girls and reducing their vulnerability.
- Transform social norms and establish role models to uplift girls’ aspiration, expand employment opportunities for women and increase their decision-making power. Non-profit organizations such as Promundo launched popular campaigns to rethink gender stereotypes and promote gender equality, addressing issues that include child marriage and commercial sexual exploitation. The private sector can also play a role in developing more diverse role models by showing women in non-traditional jobs, such as engineers and machine operators, as well as encouraging male employees to balance work with more caring tasks.
- Scaling up financial inclusion efforts such as financial education, micro-savings and access to credit to allow women greater independence and better control over their financial health and future. A billion women remain excluded from the formal financial system. While mobile money platforms have dramatically reduced the number of unbanked people over the past decade, much remains to be done to integrate women into the formal financial system, including changing the business rules that deal with women as inherently “riskier” clients than men, provide universal access to cell phones and increase the representation of women working in financial institutions.
- Improve conditions in female-dominated industries that depend on a chronically underpaid and precarious workforce, particularly in the apparel, domestic work and adult entertainment industries. For example, government efforts to formalize an informal sector would allow female workers to access protections such as occupational safety and health regulations, minimum wages and health care. In addition, training and certification programs can improve the skills of women in higher paying roles, while on-site childcare offers many women the opportunity to participate in the labor market. For migrant workers, products such as SafeStep provide women with greater transparency and control in the recruitment and migration process while also establishing a mechanism to lodge a complaint in cases of violation of their rights.
- Reform justice systems that ignore the plight of women victims of exploitation, trivialize their testimonies and deny women and girls access to fair compensation. Police training can help overturn biased norms that lead to blame on victims and affect their decision to report, file and prosecute violations suffered by female victims. When prosecuting cases of sexual exploitation and forced marriage – where women and girls constitute the majority of victims – special measures should be put in place to protect the identity and dignity of the victims. In addition, the harm caused by sexual and psychological abuse, which can be difficult to quantify, should be factored into sentencing and compensation decisions.
Women and girls, especially those with lived experience of exploitation, should play a leading role in deciding how these interventions are implemented and not just as advisers and participants. Inclusive monitoring mechanisms should also be in place so that women and girls can provide feedback and, if necessary, hold organizations to account if well-intentioned plans do not materialize. Men and boys should also join as allies in these efforts, as they often perpetuate unhealthy norms and are also harmed by the limited economic power of women and girls, which is valued cost between 7.9% and 21.3% of GDP in low- and middle-income countries.
By highlighting the links between the end of modern slavery and the economic action of women and girls, we hope to show that modern slavery is not simply a matter of human rights or enforcement. of the law. Having millions of women and girls whose work is chronically undervalued and subject to exploitation is a barrier to economic growth and shared prosperity. Breaking the cycle of modern slavery requires collaboration between anti-trafficking and development actors and a joint investment in the independence, freedoms and opportunities of women and girls.