Gender equality and modern day slavery: is girl power the answer?

25 Sep, 2019 | Blogs, Latest, Slavery and Trafficking, Stop the hostile environment

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By Alice Zhao

Alice Zhao

Modern day slavery, otherwise known as simply “slavery”, is still not discussed enough, despite becoming somewhat more prominent in the public consciousness (see, for example, Coronation Street or Princess Eugenie’s Anti-Slavery Collective). Some people know that women and children make up most of the modern slavery victims, but this is often considered with the women as victims after the event, rather than thinking about how and why female adults are much more likely to become victims in most cases than male adults. By showing the evidence of the clear gender imbalance and discussing existing reports and stories, this piece seeks to explore some of the root causes, and makes recommendations on how we can ameliorate this issue.

How do you know if someone is a slave?

Stats and facts: what does modern slavery have to do with gender?

The facts do not lie. According to the ILO in 2017, nearly three-quarters of modern slavery victims were female, and women made up 99% of “forced labour in the commercial sex industry”. 84% of victims of forced marriages were female. Slavery is not just the process by which a victim ends up in their situation, but can also include sexual assault by exploiters, giving birth to children conceived through rape, isolation, and further forced marriages.

Source: Home Office

There is a clear gendered aspect to the different types of modern slavery. The infographic, taken from a Home Office report, shows the Home Office’s typology of seventeen modern slavery offences in the UK. Men are more susceptible to labour exploitation, as men tend to go out to work more, but women by far are more likely to be victims of domestic servitude, and sexual exploitation. Men are victims too, but this piece focuses on the gender inequality roots of women making up a disproportionate number of slavery victims. Indeed, if women and men were equal in the workforce, the number of male forced labour victims might decrease. There is a UN investigator, whose full title is “Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children”, which shows that the gender issue is of particular concern since it is specifically mentioned.

Croydon Community Against Trafficking (CCAT) suggests that the four main ways in which women are disproportionately victims of slavery in the UK are sexual exploitation (90% in 2018), domestic servitude (72%), forced marriage, and forced labour (statistics from National Crime Agency). The actual numbers may shock people, but the types of modern slavery where women are by far more likely to be victims may not. The questions remain: why do they not come as much of a shock, and why are women more likely to be exploited in the first place?

Why gender equality?

Equality does not mean automatically treating everyone exactly the same, but rather acknowledging that there are differences, and adapting behaviour accordingly because humans are not identical. Identical treatment would mean ignoring all other characteristics. Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men shows that men are usually the default setting for anything related to the average human being. To misquote Orwell, all genders are born equal, but some are more equal than others. Female empowerment would by no means be the sole answer, because there will always be despicable people who commit horrific acts, but it would be a good start.

“all genders are born equal, but some are more equal than others”

To cure a disease, doctors try to both ease symptoms and tackle the initial cause of the illness. Prosecuting perpetrators and helping victims (two key areas in the UK) are helpful when carried out consistently and effectively, but truly fighting modern day slavery requires fighting the root of the problem. According to the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, “Gender-based inequalities are the primary causes of slavery”.

Innate inequality behind the gendered aspect 

The ILO refers to societally entrenched gender inequality, which means that female victims are often missed by authorities, or not taken seriously as potential victims. As with all victims, there is the issue of reports not being taken seriously by the authorities. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations stated in his message for this year’s International Women’s day, “Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power”. As the weaker sex, it is generally harder to be taken seriously, and to advocate for one’s own interests when the attitude of inferiority has become entrenched.

Source: DFID

The areas where women are most disproportionately targeted are forced marriage and being coerced into being sex workers. An analysis of why this is the case shows that the causes of modern slavery are “intrinsically linked to other social, economic, political and cultural phenomena”, i.e. it is extremely difficult to escape the societal inequalities, such as for example,  the custom of marrying daughters off for financial purposes. In a document by the Department For International Development (DFID) on ‘Modern Slavery and Women’s Economic Empowerment’, the vulnerable groups listed include “Socially and economically marginalised or disempowered”, “Uneducated / poorly skilled”, and “Household suffering crises”. These three are particularly of note. There is no question that women are socially marginalised and disempowered. Women around the world are more likely to face extreme poverty, which also affects access to education and employment. According to Humanium (an NGO that promotes children’s rights), using Nepal as an example, women are most likely to be poorly skilled, as families that can only afford to send some of their children to school will generally educate the sons, and women usually stay at home to look after the family from an early age. With this in mind, often when there is a financial crisis, the women who had previously stayed at home will go out to work. However, often not having been educated to a high level, women can usually only take low-paying jobs or a job in the informal sector, which exposes them to an even higher risk of exploitation and abuse. Women may also resort to sex work as extra means of earning money, and then find themselves in a coercive situation.

“Gender-based inequalities are the primary causes of slavery”

From a consequential standpoint, there are clear inequalities at stake that also have cyclical implications. An example of this is the possibility of rape and forced pregnancies. A report by Hestia, that works with victims of slavery, noted that a-quarter of victims they had helped were pregnant. This shows a generational aspect of women in slavery: the children of these women are born into severely disadvantaged circumstances, and could be born into a slavery environment, in a never-ending vicious cycle. In terms of intersectionality, it has already been established that women are more likely to be victims of slavery. As discussed above, “economically marginalised” people, children (see DFID diagram above) and those with close links to victims are vulnerable to being trafficked. The compounding of all these factors leaves a daughter of a (very likely poor) slavery victim very susceptible to slavery.

What is the solution?

Modern slavery is not an issue that will simply go away. Nor is it the only way in which women and girls are victimised. A somewhat unique aspect of modern slavery compared to other human rights issues is that it “is both a symptom and a cause”. It is a process rather than one incident in one location. The root causes of modern slavery therefore need to be addressed before it can be truly tackled, but doing so could also reduce the societal inequality, and so on. Before legislation can be effectively enacted, there needs to first be a cultural shift that will be at the very least accepting, if not in favour, of such regulatory changes.

One more direct approach is to combat poverty, as the lack of economic independence renders these women extremely vulnerable to victimisation. There is an aspect of an endless cycle here, as lack of economic independence causes victimisation into slavery, which causes more lack of economic independence. The other part of economic independence is the independence part. Societally engrained gender inequality in many cases results in girls being born with an automatic disadvantage, let alone when considering the intersectionality of poor women or ethnic minority women.

There is also need for female empowerment to improve their own sense of “agency”. Increasing agency could include teaching women, perhaps even those who have not yet been victims, basic literacy and vocational skills with which they could escape the shadows of slavery and trafficking. In an ideal scenario, a campaign for a particular group’s rights would actively involve members of that group so that their lived experiences and concerns can be adequately incorporated. Women are (prospective) victims of slavery, but they should also be seen as “agents of change” who can have roles to play in implementing preventative measures.

These may seem like big steps to take. Really, a good step to begin with would be to just treat genders equally. It would also help those male victims who get overlooked because victims are traditionally thought of as female. This does not have to mean identical treatment, and certainly does not mean prioritising women in all areas. All it requires is an acknowledgement that genders are different, but that different does not mean inferior or superior. Just different. The world would be a better place if we could just have more equality.

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