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A gender perspective on modern slavery

A gender perspective on modern slavery

Modern slavery is all around us. We constantly encounter products of modern slavery, be it our smartphones, clothes or many other items in our daily lives. Global estimates indicate that an unacceptable 40 million women, men and children are trapped in modern slavery around the world today, but the numbers could be much higher due to the opacity of this phenomenon.  

Alarmingly, there is also a disproportionate number of women and girls impacted by modern slavery, with this group representing 71% of victims of modern slavery. More precisely, women and girls represent 99% of victims of forced labour in the commercial sex industry and 58% in other sectors. They also make up 40% of victims of forced labour imposed by state authorities and 84% of victims of forced marriages (Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, ILO, 2017). 

What happens when one considers such data not on the basis of sex but of gender, more specifically non-binary gender? Differentiating between gender and sex can provide a crucial insight into modern slavery, given that most studies that focus on the gendered aspects of this phenomenon, in reality present only binary data based on sex (i.e. on women or men) and do not account for other gendered dimensions.  

Social constructs and expectations  

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), gender ‘refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other.’ Hence, gender is a social construct that differs from sex, which refers instead to the biological and physiological characteristics of the individual.  

Gender produces hierarchies and inequalities due to the socially constructed expectations connected to the role of women or men. This results in gendered power relations which imply a conventional approach of males having a superior advantage over females. Implications include potential or actual abuse of power and unethical behaviours such as harassment, abuse, or worse, assault.

A more nuanced view  

Gendered power relations and inequalities also provide a more nuanced view of the complexity of modern slavery, and allow us to understand that women can also be victims of forced labour in traditionally male sectors. 

In recent years, there has been a “feminisation of agriculture” with an increasing number of women entering into forced labour in agriculture. The study ‘The Role of Gender Relations in Tackling Forced Labour in Supply Chains’ (LeBaron and Gore, 2018), for instance, found that women are increasingly coerced into forced labour in the cocoa industry (in Ghana) and in the tea industry (in India).

The ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery’ report (ILO, 2017), meanwhile, illustrates the sex distribution of forced labour by different economic sectors. It found that women are disproportionately entrapped in situations of modern slavery within sectors such as accommodation and food services, domestic work, wholesale and trade, textile and apparel production, and personal services. Hence, women are often involved in more poorly-regulated sectors, whilst men tend to be victims of forced labour in sectors where there has been an increasing level of scrutiny, such as agriculture, forestry, construction, mining and fisheries. Looking at the example of the fisheries sector, the grave human rights conditions faced by crew-members have been the subject of several reports, but what is less commonly noted are labour conditions within the seafood-processing sector, in which women are overrepresented (particularly in Southeast Asia) as the study ‘Continuing challenges in seafood supply chains and the case for stronger supermarket action’ (Oxfam, 2018) shows.  

What about non-binary gendered data? 

Gendered dimensions of modern slavery, which incorporates non-binary gender, is yet to be comprehensively understood. For example, one of the most significant international texts on modern slavery today is the ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children’ (or the Palermo Protocol), adopted in 2000, which takes into account the specific needs and risks faced by women. However, the full gendered dimension of the issue seems forgotten, as non-binary gendered data is not included. 

This missing piece of research must be urgently considered, given that specific groups of women, men and gender non-binary individuals undergo economic activities and experience forced labour in different ways. Thus, over this month, slavefreetrade will continue to explore the relationship between gender and modern slavery. Keep an eye out for our upcoming blog articles! 

This article was authored by Clara Iseppi, Impact Communicator at slavefreetrade.