The gendered side of modern slavery


4 ways women continue to be disproportionally exploited worldwide

By Elizabeth Arif-Fear, Campaigner

Friday 8th March marked International Women’s Day – a time when we celebrate the achievements of women across the globe, whilst also reminding ourselves of just how far we’ve yet to go in terms of achieving gender parity worldwide.

Gender-based inequality affects every sector of women’s lives across all sphere – socially, politically, spiritually, economically and culturally. Sadly, for millions of women and girls across the globe (including right here in the UK), economic and political discrimination continues to harm women’s progress, whilst harmful socio-cultural practices further their socio-economic, mental and physical wellbeing. There is a daily reality which is also shown by the fact that women are subsequently disproportionality affected by negative phenomena such as war, natural disaster, poverty and conflict.

The organisation One has already confirmed in the simplest of terms what we already knew: “poverty is sexist”. And well, the sad reality is that: so too is modern slavery. Whilst modern slavery continues to rise across the globe and right here on our doorstops with victims of all ages and genders, human trafficking and modern slavery is still proving to be sexist. Whilst changes in patterns and development across this criminal network have seen demographic changes over the years – including a rise in men and children affected by modern slavery, including a sharp rise in incidents of forced labour – women are still more likely to be trafficked than their male counterparts. In fact, figures from 2018 show that 40 million people worldwide are subject to modern slavery – and 71% of these are women and girls.

It’s an undeniable reality for many who are already living in immense hardship or vulnerable to exploitation. Of course, with poverty one of the “pull” factors behind traffickers, it’s no surprise that women are disproportionately affected. However, the reality behind this tragic phenomena is multifaceted response – where women are trafficked, sold and exploited for multiple gain and multiple purposes.

Here in the UK trends are changing. Last year, The National Crime Agency recorded a total 3,929 adult referrals for suspected exploitation. Women accounted for 1,857 of these (with 2,071 male cases and four recorded cases of suspected transgender victims [gender identity not listed].  Due to the increasingly high rate of forced labour, with growing numbers of males predominantly becoming victims of this form of exploitation, the gender gap has in fact narrowed in terms of modern slavery across the country. However, women continue to be disproportionality affected by other forms of modern slavery and (are more likely to) face multiple forms of exploitation in a way that men do not.

Here’s a short insight into how women continue to be sold into modern slavery and why in 2019, just by being female you’re more likely to become a victim.

1.  Sexual exploitation

Sadly, as the saying goes “sex sells”. In terms of modern slavery, sexual exploitation is widespread with almost shocking five million people being sold into sexual exploitation (e.g. forced prostitution). What’s more, the number is massively gendered. Year after year, women are still by far the most likely to be victim of sexual exploitation. Figures show that worldwide, 99% of victims in the commercial sex industryare female (comprised of both women and girls), whilst here in the UK, figures from 2018 reveal that 90% of reported victims of sexual exploitation were women.

2.  Domestic servitude

Another form of modern slavery which continues to affect a greater number of women than their male counterparts is domestic servitude. This terrible form of exploitation consists of being forced to cook and clean in people’s’ homes for little or no money, whilst being kept in terrible conditions. Worldwide, figures show that an estimated 67 million adultsare working as domestic workers with women and girls comprising 80% of this figure. Here in the UK, the gender pattern also reveals that 72% of adult victims of domestic servitude for the year 2018 were women.

3.  Forced marriage

In addition to forced prostitution (see point 1), women are also trafficked for the purposes of forced marriage. Trapped in a life of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, these women are denied their freedom, independence and the right to their own sexual, physical and emotional wellbeing. Across the globe, 15.4 million people alone in the year 2016 were forced in marriage with females almost six times more affected males. A staggering 13,000 adult females were forced into marriage compared to 2,242 adult males (with 9,762 adults compared to 5,679 children).

4.  Forced labour

An estimated 25 million people worldwide were affected by forced labour in 2016 – including work in the construction and fishing industries, in addition to the sex industry and domestic sectors amongst others (see points 1 and 2). Working for little or no pay, more and more men and women are being exploited financially and forced to work in terrible conditions on farms, in factories and in commercial outlets. In this regard, as a whole, women (and girls) still continue to be disproportionality affected by slave labour, however here in the UK, the number of men affected by forced labour (outside of the domestic and sex industry) has grown substantially and has now overtaken the number of women.

In 2018, there were over six time more recorded male (adult) victims of labour exploitation than their female counterparts. In our towns and cities across the UK, men can be increasingly found washing cars, behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens and labouring on farms. Women however are also occupying another very “gendered” space – your local nail bar – an area of business that is booming in the UK. In 2016 in fact, more beauty and grooming salonsopened than any other independent business, whilst police raised concerns that trafficking victims are being “hidden in plain sight” in nail salons across Britain. So, be careful where you head for your next beauty treatment!

Both across the globe and here in the UK, the shocking reality of modern slavery is that where money can be made, saved or gained, men and women are both exploited. The rise of male victims of modern slavery (along with children as a whole) is tragically concerning, as are the incredibly high sustained figures of women affected by this crime.

The shocking levels of sexual exploitation affecting women – in addition to these other more typically “gendered” forms of exploitation such as domestic servitude, forced marriage and the more female-dominated jobs women are pushed into – however reveals that whilst we must not underestimate the severity of modern slavery to exploit anyone at risk, we must understand its ability to “adapt” to gendered-markets and demands.

As such, we must ensure that our response to combat and tackle modern slavery is not only universal (recognising the equal of all people – male, female, young or old) but gender-focussed where possible. This can help ensure that men are saved from the increasing phenomena of forced labour whilst women can hopefully look forward to a future free from the multi-dimensional threats they face, simply because of their gender.

Modern slavery doesn’t care about gender equality, it exploits gender inequality, gender stereotypes and gender norms to seek as much gain from vulnerable women as it can. Our role is to stop it in its tracks. So, look out for the signs and recognise the differences in how modern slavery manifests itself across the gender divide. Be careful where you spend your money and the services you use.

If you’re looking for a simple therapeutic massage, a cleaner, a manicure or hear about someone getting married abroad or closer to home– think about the business you are using. Spot the signs, know your rights and the rights of others, report any suspected (or known) abuse and declare:enough is enough.

For further information on reporting suspected cases of modern slavery and for advice, please visit: