24 Apr 2019

Unfinished business: addressing the victimisation of women and girls

Although modern slavery occurs in every corner of the globe and affects many regardless of race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status, women and girls are disproportionately affected.

Photo Credit: Kate Holt via The Guardian.

This essay was first published in the 2018 Global Slavery Index.

Although modern slavery occurs in every corner of the globe and affects many regardless of race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status, women and girls are disproportionately affected.

There are an estimated 40.3 million people living in modern slavery across the globe – nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) are women and girls. While there is a large number of male victims who must also be supported and empowered, an understanding of the gender differences in victimisation can shed light on where prevention and victim identification efforts should start.

Women and girls are victims of all forms of modern slavery. In fact, they outnumber male victims in every form of modern slavery, except state-imposed forced labour.

There are many examples of women in forced labour around the globe and the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery revealed highly gendered patterns of employment and migration that see more women than men employed in informal and unregulated sectors – areas of work where heightened vulnerability to abuse and exploitation has been well-documented.

Forced marriages occur in both developing and developed nations, with women and girls being forced to marry for many reasons, some of which are closely linked to longstanding cultural practices and understandings of gender roles, while others reflect far more pragmatic economic reasons relating to income generation and alleviating poverty. In some parts of the world, young girls and women are forced to marry in exchange for payment to their families, the cancellation of debt, to settle family disputes, or to secure another person’s entry into the country. In some societies, a woman can still be inherited by the brother of her deceased husband and forced marriages may occur when a rapist is permitted to escape criminal sanctions by marrying the victim, usually with the consent of her family. In countries with significant levels of conflict, women are abducted by armed groups and forced to marry fighters.

Modern slavery never happens in isolation. Findings from the Global Estimates indicate the impact of broader human rights abuses, such as, domestic and sexual violence and discriminatory beliefs and practices around access to property, education, and citizenship play a role in the disproportionate victimisation of women and girls across all forms of modern slavery. Globally, women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty and to report food insecurity. In turn, this impacts access to education with data revealing those living in poor households have higher rates of illiteracy, and of those, women in poor households are the most disadvantaged of all. Lack of education restricts employment opportunities for women and globally, women’s labour force participation is 31 per cent below that of men. In light of this, it comes as no surprise that women have access to fewer economic resources than men, for example, they make up just 13 per cent of agricultural landowners across the globe. Without access to education, better employment opportunities, and economic resources, women are at greater risk of modern slavery.

Cultural practices and values, family structures, lack of autonomy, few employment opportunities, and access to education all play a part in creating risks that impact women and girls more than they do men and boys. When a decision is made to send a son to school and a daughter into the fields or to marry, their life outcomes diverge substantially. Although in many instances forced or child marriages are believed to be the best way to secure a daughter’s future, there are significant health consequences. Girls who are married young are at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, obstetric fistulas, and death during childbirth. Such marriages place women and girls at greater risk of being subjected to other forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and other forms of forced labour. For girls who are married young, education moves even further out of reach.

Unequal risk for men and women is not only the result of cultural practices and economic decision-making. Discriminatory legislative practices also exacerbate the disadvantaged position of women and girls; these include unequal inheritance rights, husbands having the legal right to prevent wives from working, no legal protection from domestic violence, exemption from prosecution for rapists if they are married to, or marry, their victim. The numerous gaps in legal protection for women and girls must be addressed to help break the cycle of inequality.

Modern slavery cannot be addressed in isolation. It is both a symptom and a cause, and in tackling other fundamental rights issues through the SDGs – including but not limited to eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls (SDG 5.2), eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilations (SDG 5.3), ending abuse, exploitation, and trafficking of children (SDG 16.2), and facilitating orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people (SDG 10.7) – we will reduce the vulnerability of women and girls to modern slavery.

Small steps in the right direction are being taken in some regions. In the forced marriage space, raising community awareness on the dangers of forced marriage, human rights, and the importance of education for girls in bridging the inequality gap have shown some progress in combating modern slavery Front-line organisations such as the Freedom Fund and their local partners have made significant inroads into addressing the slavery of women and girls by adopting a wraparound approach that tackles the root causes.

At the heart of these issues lie traditions and systems that perpetuate and propagate the discrimination and exploitation of women. In his 2018 International Women’s Day address, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the push for gender equality is “…the unfinished business of our time.” In the wave of activism that has propelled the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns across the globe, there is no better time to tackle the root causes of vulnerability among women and girls.

There are 28.6 million women and girls living in modern slavery who need us to accelerate our efforts. The price of our inaction is their freedom.