Mankind has achieved great feats of progress yet human trafficking, a form of slavery, remains are problem. So much effort has been directed towards fighting for gender equality and protection of human rights. Yet women remain particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. Why is that?
According to UNODC GLOTIP 2014 full report, women and girls made up 70% of human trafficking victims. Closer to home in March of 2016, it was reported that over 200 Zimbabwean women were tapped in Kuwait.
These facts are a manifestation of how hitherto our societies, culture, legislation, leadership and economies are failing to protect the rights of all of its citizens.
Women remain particularly remain vulnerable to human trafficking due to a myriad of reasons;
Commodification of women and lack of economic agency.
Women remain commodified and that is why many still believe that autonomy of a woman can be acquired through a transaction. There is a deeply rooted culture where exploitation of women is tolerated and often excused. Some argue that this is evident in the lobola culture where men feel justified to abuse their wives because “they paid for them”. The point remains however that the objectification of women leads to subjugation of their rights.
The same mentality is why human traffickers can buy and sell women as if they are objects. This is based on the patriarchal gender roles that strip women off their autonomy and make subordinates out of them.
By viewing women as objects, we deny them of their own agency and this leads to discrimination of women in education, employment and other opportunities. Women therefore become more vulnerable.
In low income and rural communities, women are often dependent on men, with no economic or social agency of their own. Often young girls are not given access to education and therefore are unable to rise up to make a meaningful difference economically. In the same communities, girls are married off to become child brides. In the end, their lives are either controlled by their parents or husbands. As result, they remain vulnerable to abuse and traffickers take advantage of that.
Researchers have highlighted that traffickers target poor families and promise victims decent employment or even fake marriage proposals. The families then unwittingly urge or even force young women to accept the offer. Because the young women have no other choice and no other means of survival, they yield.
Women in abusive families or marriages are also at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. Most are not brave enough to report the abusers, who are often their breadwinners. In the event that a survivor makes a report, judicial processes usually take time and are expensive. This leaves the woman more desperate for economic opportunities such that she becomes an easy target for manipulation by human traffickers.
Societal expectations of motherhood
In our society, women quite often carry the burden of caring for their children, more frequently than men. It is a common scenario in Zimbabwean modern culture for a single mother to leave her child with their grandmother in search of opportunities in foreign countries. In recent years South Africa has become the common destination for Zimbabwean women. Faced with a situation where one has to single-handedly provide for her family, women then take on any form of servitude in order to make a living.
One such documented case was that of Peggy” (real identity withheld), who had better hopes and dreams for a better life for her and her son. She moved to Kuwait after being promised a salary of $600 per month only to be forced into unpaid labour. When she dared to resist the abuse, her ordeal became even more horrific: her captors made her a sex slave. Her quest for a decent life led her to a hellish experience.
She, like many other women driven by the desire and need to care for their families, was prey to traffickers. Besides employment agencies, many women also attempt to gain economic emancipation through study abroad programs and scholarships without any guarantee of whether the agencies are legitimate not.
Discrimination in the workplace
The struggle for emancipation does not end in securing a job for most women. Many are forced to work in hostile work environments.
“The educated and professional woman, no matter how capable, is never considered the equal of her male peers and colleagues. She may be admired, humoured, tolerated….and if she plays her cards well, and she might even make an inroad in her field of activity. But too often it will be because of “favour,” rarely because of her capabilities”. These are words said by David Buchanan in 1993 work yet they remain relevant today. In Zimbabwe we even saw it at play at a political field where former Vice President Mujuru’s achievements were ridiculed and attributed to “favour”.
Such attitudes are not only limited to the dirty political game but are also still prevalent in the workplace. Women still face discrimination and this limits their growth trajectory. One such form of discrimination is through sexual harassment and it is one of the “greatest factor(s) deterring women from realising the full actualisation of their economic empowerment in Zimbabwe.” Because men often hold key positions of power in most organisations and some patriarchal mentalities justify maltreatment of women, many women are often left vulnerable to harassment and left in a situation where they have no power to report it. Such an unfair working environment victimises many and often forces the sufferer into desperately seeking better working opportunities elsewhere.
Furthermore in an economic environment with inadequate job opportunities, researchers believe that women are often the last hired and the first fired. These conditions add to a hostile situation that forces many women to look abroad for work. This makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
As we continue our fight against human trafficking, these problems areas need to be addressed primarily. It may seem noble to raise money to repatriate victims of human trafficking, but the real approach should be making sure women and other groups at risk do not become desperate enough to accept any insecure ‘opportunities’, especially in foreign countries. Now more than ever, the country’s leaders need to focus on creating employment so that its citizens are not driven to desperate means of survival. Furthermore women’s rights need to be protected within the work environment so that harassment and marginalisation becomes a problem of the past.
Unless we address the underlying problems and vulnerabilities that cause and exacerbate human trafficking, we are simply treating symptoms and not the actual disease.
Main image taken from www.seedstheatre.org