Taking Gender Equality from Promise, to Policy, to Practice in the Fight Against Modern Slavery

8 April 2021
Research Innovation

Jacqueline Joudo Larsen  | Criminologist and Head of Research, Walk Free Foundation

Despite significant advancements in policy as a result of the gender equality movement, an uncomfortable truth still persists: women and girls disproportionately experience discrimination and exploitation. The statistics are telling — females constitute 71 per cent of all victims of modern slavery.

Socio-economic disadvantages, such as poverty, a lack of political representation, limited access to education and a lack of economic agency are all magnified by gender. In 2020, girls are still more likely to live in extreme poverty than boys, devote far more time to helping with domestic chores and care work at home and remain disproportionally at risk of sexual abuse and violence. Ultimately, these disparate outcomes are fueled by biased attitudes that devalue women and girls. These sexist and misogynist attitudes are reflected in disproportionately high rates of gender-based violence and harmful cultural norms. Geography also impacts the level of discrimination and vulnerability to exploitation, as inequalities both within and between countries can significantly alter women and girls’ risk to modern slavery.

The importance of addressing the structural risks faced by women and girls in order to make progress in the fulfillment of international human rights and development cannot be overstated. Gender equality already permeates the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet, no country in the world is currently doing enough to disrupt gender inequality and achieve the SDGs by 2030, which begs the question: how have we not yet bridged the gap between promise and practice?  

Part of the answer lies in the fact that we are fighting a truly global battle that is fuelled by individual and community beliefs that women and girls are inferior to men and boys. It is not a problem we will address through legislation alone, but one that requires attention to entrenched sociocultural norms and mores—and we must do this in every country in the world. Efforts to address gender inequality and forms of modern slavery, such as forced and child marriage, often require contending with the role that existing attitudes, traditional practices, and religion can play in perpetuating discrimination and exploitation.

Challenging harmful social norms that drive modern slavery is not easy, but it is not impossible. While legislation is critical, we know these crimes still occur in countries where anti-slavery laws exist. Addressing the disproportionate impact of modern slavery on women and girls requires a shift away from seeing girls as having less value than boys and a recognition that gender-based discrimination at every stage of life undermines economic independence. No one understands this local context and is better placed to develop effective solutions than those who are grappling with this reality every day. Ownership of policy interventions at a local level is critical in ensuring sustainable solutions. Once funders have moved on, it is survivors, communities and grassroots organizations that remain. They need to be supported over the longer-term to develop and implement culturally sensitive programming to eliminate entrenched discrimination.

Anti-slavery and counter-trafficking work is also often siloed from broader human rights and gender equality programming. This means that vital information sharing and opportunities to collaborate are missed, impeding the effectiveness of interventions. However, modern slavery cannot be addressed in isolation. It is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality and discrimination. Tackling these root causes will have a multiplier effect across all the SDGs, including the eradication of modern slavery. Governments must therefore acknowledge the clear link between gender and risk of modern slavery in their gender and development programming and budgets.

To achieve the SDGs and fulfill the human rights imperative of ending modern slavery, we must take a broad and truly collaborative approach to abolitionist work. Our starting point must be to address the immediate socio-economic and structural disadvantages that change the trajectory of a girl’s life and expose her to a disproportionate risk of modern slavery, such as poverty and a lack of access to education and health services. There is no doubt that the structural scale and interconnected nature of these issues can sometimes make intervention seem futile. However, if our approach to anti-slavery and counter-trafficking work is as nuanced as the issue itself, and if we actively and substantively collaborate, we can turn promises first into comprehensive policy, and then into global practice.

This article has been prepared by Jacqueline Joudo Larsen 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.

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