The Trafficking of Girls and Young Women: Identifying Gender-specific Vulnerabilities in Nepal, Nigeria and Uganda

11 March 2020
Research Innovation

Anthony Davis  | Policy & Advocacy Advisor for Gender Equality, Plan International UK

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7 has the potential to transform the lives of millions. While there is growing international momentum behind this target, increased global and national efforts are required to address the unique challenges of girls and young women, who constitute the majority of identified victims of human trafficking.

A recent report released by Plan International UK, the International Organisation for Migration and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine focuses on the trafficking of girls and young women up to the age of 24 in Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda. It describes the realities faced through their migration and trafficking trajectories.

This research adopted a mixed methods interdisciplinary approach to investigate the trafficking of girls and young women within and from the three countries—which were selected based on research interest and data availability.

Quantitative analysis was conducted on three different datasets: the IOM’s Global Victim of Trafficking Database; the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix Flow Monitoring Surveys—which provided supplementary data for the Nigeria chapter; and the Work in Freedom Programme’s South Asia Work in Freedom Transnational Evaluation (SWiFT)—from which the Nepal data was extracted. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with eight to ten adolescent girls and young women who were receiving post-trafficking assistance services, as well as with key policymakers and service providers in each of the three countries.

Migration drivers and trafficking risks

Global inequalities, humanitarian crises, violence, poverty, unemployment, gender inequality, labour mobility and limited access to education and social protection are important drivers of migration for girls and young women. Intersecting inequalities—including those associated with their gender, age and social class—often place them in disadvantaged positions vis-à-vis male and/or older family members, or in negotiations with officials, intermediaries, employers and clients. This leads to increased vulnerability to exploitation and abuse in migration.

The desire to improve living conditions and increase economic opportunities was thus a critical factor in many migration decisions. In Nepal, for example, 76 percent of adolescent girls and 88 percent of young women migrated with the intention of earning extra income for their families. Most girls and young women from Nigeria and Uganda report being from poor or very poor families.

While education and vocational training are important for combating human trafficking and the worst forms of child labour, poverty, social exclusion and gender bias in access to education mean that education is unattainable for many. Girls drop out of school to support themselves or their families, or in search of economic opportunities. Less than half of Nigerian and Nepalese girls and young women under study had continued schooling beyond primary education. Situations of poverty, family instability or crisis also prevented many Ugandan girls and young women from attending school.

Lower levels of qualifications, social capital and assets mean that these girls and young women are less likely than other girls and boys who attended school to find decent work, making them more vulnerable to forced migration and human trafficking. Many end up being exploited in hazardous work. Some are forced into marriage.

High rates of youth unemployment in Nigeria and especially in Uganda also pose great challenges to the social and economic inclusion of young people. Nearly half of Nepalese women and girls in the SWiFT dataset sought to migrate because of a lack of decent employment opportunities. The reality of youth unemployment alongside their often-fragile social networks and opportunities at destination—especially in Sub-Saharan African cities and the Gulf countries—increased the likelihood of their suffering labour and sexual exploitation.

The impact of humanitarian crises

The impact of humanitarian crises may also create the conditions for trafficking through increased economic pressure on survivors, weaker rule of law, widespread corruption and deeper inequalities. The poorest and most marginalised are often hardest hit.

The conflict in the north-east of Nigeria and the devastating 2015 earthquakes in Nepal caused widespread displacement, increased violence levels, and severely weakened or destroyed schools, social structures, health systems and livelihoods. This led to heightened risks of human trafficking.

Fifty-eight percent of Nigerian girls and young women interviewed by the IOM in transit points in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes reported violence and conflict as the primary reason for their migration. Many took dangerous migration routes and means of travel, including through Libya, where they were subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, restrictions on their freedom, forced labour, and kidnapping and extortion by smugglers.

Family members, relatives and friends also played a role in the migration and trafficking of girls and young women. In some cases, they helped arrange and finance migration through local recruiters. In others, they referred girls to jobs that turned out to be exploitative. In a minority of cases, they were the exploiters. The death of one or both parents, family violence and extreme poverty often forced girls to migrate in very uncertain and sometimes unsafe conditions.

Gendered exploitation

Gender inequalities are pervasive across Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda. Adolescent girls and young women often have limited agency and decision-making power, and expectations around gender roles can shape the various trafficking situations that boys and girls are exposed to. Girls and young women are often exploited in invisible and feminised sectors, where they are often ignored or overlooked, economically devalued and legally unprotected.

In Uganda, for example, most adolescent girls interviewed for the research described being trafficked internally into domestic servitude. Similarly, in Nepal, over three-quarters migrated for domestic work— a feminised, highly unregulated and often invisible labour sector. Most Nigerian girls and young women were trafficked for sexual exploitation (57 per cent of young girls under 10, 57 per cent of adolescent girls and 68 per cent of young women).

Once trafficked, they experienced widespread, multiple and overlapping forms of violence, abuse, and exploitation pre-departure, in transit and at destination. These included sexual abuse, rape, and psychological violence in their everyday lives. Girls and young women were frequently controlled through false promises or deception, denied freedom of movement and remuneration, and were subjected to physical and sexual violence, or threats against themselves and their families.

Poverty, mental health problems (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety) and stigma commonly manifest for girls and young women who have been rescued or escaped exploitation.

All the girls and women in this study managed to escape exploitation, but millions more remain trapped in abusive situations. Many might never speak about the exploitation, abuse and violence they experienced. A significant proportion of them are likely never to be identified by or self-refer to services assisting survivors of human trafficking.

While the governments of Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda are committed to ending human trafficking, more needs to be done at all levels to ensure that laws, policies and strategies to prevent and respond to human trafficking are effectively implemented. Improving the availability and accessibility of victim-centred responses and longer-term support and rehabilitation for survivors in particular is a critical priority across the three countries.

Anthony Davis is a Policy & Advocacy Advisor for Gender Equality at Plan International UK. Follow him on Twitter:@anthonydavis82

This article has been prepared by Anthony Davis as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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