Symposium: Gendered Measurements of Exploitation and its Impact on Survivors
Gender is not just a distinction between physical characteristics, as it reflects economics, politics and culture, and in all these areas, where communities stick to traditional cultural values and gender hierarchy, women are often unfavoured. This gender bias often prevents them from being accorded equal opportunities as their male counterparts who are viewed as more important as they are expected to continue the family lineage while women leave their families for marriage. This leaves most women from such communities at a disadvantage, as they may be forced into early marriages, denied educational opportunities and provided with limited or no economic or social protection.
Deep-rooted traditional practices and cultural values thereby foster a patriarchal societal system and make women more vulnerable to exploitation. Similarly, these structures may make it difficult for them to seek justice or remediation for abuse, thus contributing to under-reporting or not reporting such cases. For instance, in a case where a girl has been raped, such communities may view the victim as being immoral, thereby blaming her rather than the perpetrator. Her immediate family may choose to hide her abuse to avoid shame and ridicule. In an attempt to protect the family name, the victims may end up being subjected to early marriage in such cases, or sent away from their families to do unskilled labour for minimal pay while being overworked.
Women are not only taught but also expected to be subservient outside their home. This makes it hard for them to report workplace exploitation for fear of negative consequences like being alienated, fired and being blamed as the victim. From undervaluation and sexual harassment of women in exchange for benefits like promotion, to gender inclusivity being an afterthought when work policies and programmes are being designed, women have for the longest time been sidelined in workplaces. Exclusion of women from certain jobs—such as, being denied access to positions of authority—not only limits women to a certain level but makes women subordinate to men even when they have more skills than the latter. This is reflected in the disproportionately low number of women in leadership positions. Being denied the opportunity to get certain skills and training limits some women to low-income jobs.
Gender bias is also seen in the exposure of children to sexual exploitation, including recruitment for pornography. Girls are sexually assaulted and forced into sex slavery and boys may also be sexually exploited by people who present themselves as their benefactors. Such cases are also almost never reported by families who fear a falling out with the perpetrator and losing whatever aid they were receiving. Emotional coercion adds to this vulnerability and couples with lack of awareness that such cases are incidents of trafficking or exploitation, hence leaving them at them at the mercy of the perpetrator.
While there are clear social and cultural factors that render women and girls more vulnerable to early marriage and labour exploitation, men and boys cannot be ignored in considering prevention and remedy to modern slavery. With the vast majority of human trafficking victims being women and girls, most of the assistance and protection policies that have been put in place focus on them while minimal and, in some instances, no attention is given to men and boys. This may be because of social structure and the common belief that men cannot actually be exploited. Men have most of the time been viewed as aggressors and not victims, so those men who have been exploited and who try to report or speak about their exploitation are met with disbelief, often seen as weak and may be subjected to shame and ridicule. To protect themselves from this gender-based stigmatization, many men may choose not to speak out about their experiences.
In most African cultures, for example, men are expected to be providers and protectors, and they are trained in these expectations from an early age. Most of them end up being subjected to long hours, meagre pay, poor housing and—in some instances—sexual exploitation. Though this is a form of modern slavery, most of them don’t complain. For instance, if a man complains of minimal pay despite long working hours and physical abuse, they might be told to stop whining and “man up”. With a compromised sense of manhood, male victims may blame themselves for not doing enough to protect themselves from being exploited. This may lead to them not speaking up about their experiences. Instead, they endure a life of misery and a cycle of poverty that traps them, their spouses and their children with little chance for escape.
The inability of such victims, both male and female, to speak out in a bid to protect themselves from social judgement may also make it difficult to quantify the exact number of victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery, much less remediate such cases. Lack of knowledge and wayward cultural practices also act as a hindrance, as victims from such communities may choose not to speak up due to the defined gender roles and community expectations of them. Both men and women are potential or actual victims of exploitation, and it is therefore important to consider how gender roles affect vulnerability to abuse, and create truly inclusive policy and practices.
This article has been prepared by Caroline Adhiambo as a contribution 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.
This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Gendered Measurements of Modern Slavery” symposium. Read all the responses below: