How Sex Traffickers Exploit Vulnerabilty and Gaps in the Law

By Mitzi Perdue

Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director of Equality NowYasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director of Equality Now, has an interesting take on sex trafficking.  Although Harvard-educated, she grew up in Pakistan, and her defining moment came at age 10 when her country’s laws were ‘Islamized.’

She got to see, under the new regime, how women were treated as second-class citizens. The experience was the starting point of her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights.

Today, sex trafficking is a major issue for the organization she heads. The reason? Sex trafficking is a highly gendered business. Many of the traffickers and most of their clients are men, and the vast majority of sex-trafficked people are women and girls.

Since its founding in 1992, Equality Now has ignited a global movement to use the law to end gender-based violence and discrimination. In the last 27 years, Equality Now has helped contribute towards changing more than 50 sex discriminatory laws – including those allowing rape, child marriage, and so-called “honor” killings. Equality Now works on these issues in the US and internationally.

Sex Trafficking Is Big Business

In addition to being highly gendered, sex trafficking is immensely lucrative – estimated at $99 billion a year.  In the words of one trafficker: “Why traffic in drugs or guns that you can sell only one time when in women and girls you have a commodity that can be sold again and again!” 

From Hassan’s experience, traffickers prey on the vulnerability of women and girls and exploit all ways in which to create a market for their sale.  She lists the range of ways in which women and girls end up in the sex trade.  They are:

  • sold into prostitution because of poverty;
  • deceived into signing contracts for jobs and ending up in sex trade;
  • tricked by “boyfriends” and trapped in prostitution;
  • trafficked into temporary marriages for sex;
  • sold into child marriages or trafficked as sex slaves during times of conflicts or natural disasters;
  • advertised and sold on the internet; and
  • trafficked in organized virginity sales.

The constant in all these situations is the exploitation of women that results from their unequal status, both legally and socially.  There’s also the “normalization” of the sex trade into which they are trafficked.

The links between sex trafficking and the commercial sex trade

Hassan notes that traffickers look for opportunities in places where the sex trade is legal, as it is much easier for the market to flourish. She points out that countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Canada, Northern Ireland, and Ireland have decriminalized women who are engaging in commercial sex, and at the same time, these countries have criminalized the traffickers,  and buyers. The result has been reduced sex trafficking.  On the other hand, countries that have legalized commercial sex, such as the Netherlands and Germany, have increased trafficking to fulfill an increase in international sex tourists and local demand.

Equality Now advocates for a three-pronged solution – (1) ensuring that women and girls in prostitution are seen as victims and not criminals; (2) decreasing their vulnerability through a range of legal protections; and (3)shrinking the commercial sex trade into which women and girls are trafficked. 

Hassan notes that in addition to criminalizing traffickers, pimps and brothel owners, it is essential to address the underlying misogyny and sexism of the “johns” who normalize the purchase of women’s bodies. 

Equality Now is working with a diverse range of advocacy groups focusing on poverty, addiction, homelessness, foster care, LGBTQI youth…

Hassan ends by pointing out that sex trafficking cannot be addressed without looking at the experiences of women who have survived it.  She quotes from a survivor of sex trafficking from India:

“When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape, but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist.” 

Learn more about Global Anti-Trafficking Auction, a group seeking auction donations to stop sex and human trafficking across the globe.