This op-ed was originally published by the CNN Freedom Project on 17 January 2018.
Born to a desperately poor family in rural Nepal, Alina was just five years old when she was forced to work as a maid in her village. She endured long hours of hard labour without breaks, and was physically and verbally abused. She received no schooling.
When Alina turned 11, a neighbour lured her into work as a “waitress” in one of Kathmandu’s dance bars. For five years she was sexually exploited by customers there, during which time her employer withheld her wages, and regularly beat her.
Alina – not her real name – is safe now, thanks to the efforts of a local NGO. But this level of extreme exploitation is far too common around the world.
Every day across the globe, millions of women and girls are used, controlled and exploited for commercial or personal gain. They are trafficked into the sex industry, kept in servitude as domestic workers in private homes, forced to work in exploitative conditions in factories and bonded into agricultural labour. They suffer terrible violence and are denied their basic rights and freedoms.
Heightened risk of slavery
In many countries, the simple fact of being female creates a heightened risk of falling into slavery. Pervasive gender discrimination means that girls are marginalized, treated as second-class citizens within their communities and viewed as an economic burden by their families.
Many are forced to drop out of school early and sent to work in exploitative conditions, or are married off against their will. Women are more likely than men to seek work in unregulated and informal sectors where they are vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation. All of these factors contribute to women and girls making up some 70% of the world’s 40 million people in slavery.
Globally, more research is needed on the most effective frontline strategies to address the gender dimensions of slavery. In an effort to contribute to this knowledge, my organization, the Freedom Fund has published a new report, “Her freedom, her voice,” drawing on insights from its last four years working in countries with a high burden of slavery.
The report identifies promising approaches to tackle this scourge, and highlights priorities for further research and investment.
The starting point is that exploitation doesn’t happen in isolation. It feeds on vulnerable populations in vulnerable communities. And women and girls are often those most at risk. Programs must engage the whole community to combat gender inequality and harmful norms. This includes parents, community leaders, and also men and boys.
Need for female leadership
Anti-slavery NGOs in high-prevalence countries also need to acknowledge that they function within deeply patriarchal societies and hence need to make very conscious efforts to enable female leaders and managers to emerge. A shortage of female leadership is holding the sector back.
Strengthening women and girls’ “agency” – their ability to influence and make decisions that affect their lives – is key. Impactful programs teach women and girls life skills that empower their agency and allow them to make informed decisions that affect their lives. Creating peer groups of adolescent girls is a powerful means of building their confidence to challenge social and cultural norms that underpin gender inequality.
When it comes to awareness-raising activities that inform women and girls about trafficking risks, the report points out that these are only effective if they are tailored to specific pressures and local contexts. For example, women migrating abroad for work may be well aware of the risks but nonetheless embark on dangerous travel due to cultural pressures or because they are unconvinced by warnings from NGOs. One promising strategy is to engage those previously exploited to talk about their experiences, as they are more likely to be listened to and to provide actionable advice.
Then there is the issue of rescue operations. While those being enslaved need to be liberated from their places of exploitation, raid and rescue operations can cause unintended harm. When possible, providing support services such as drop-in centres, shelters, counselling and job training can encourage a more gradual and informed exit, aiding survivors’ recovery and helping to prevent re-exploitation.
And of course, women and girls who have been subject to horrendous abuse are highly likely to suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. More research is needed on how to best deliver the most appropriate mental health support for these female survivors of exploitation.
Alina is now in a much better place since leaving the dance bar. She appears happier, and exhibits greater self-confidence. She is keen to share what she has learned with others at risk in Kathmandu. While her story is but one amongst the millions of those currently or recently exploited, it is a stark illustration of the importance of putting women and girls at the centre of efforts to tackle the global scourge of slavery. It is only by doing this that we can effectively tackle this crime.
Pictured: A women’s self-help group in south-eastern Nepal. Members of the group have come together against bonded labour in their communities.
Photo credit: Ginny Baumann/Freedom Fund