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Analysing the gendered dimensions of modern slavery

Analysing the gendered dimensions of modern slavery

Being a woman, or being poor, is not the cause for modern slavery. However, specific vulnerabilities put certain groups of individuals, e.g. women, at a higher risk of being exploited. As stated by the French National Center for Scientific Research1 (CNRS), “modern-day slavery is the exploitation of vulnerability”.  

Links between gender and vulnerability

The precise links between gender and vulnerabilities to exploitation and forced labour in global supply chains are still poorly understood, even though women and girls account for the majority of forced labourers worldwide (LeBaron et Gore, 2020). Research and initiatives have largely focused on areas typically considered as feminine, such as domestic chores, personal care and sex work. Thus, it is crucial to deepen the understanding of the specific gendered vulnerabilities involved in forced labour and modern slavery. The term gendered vulnerabilities suggests that women, men and non-binary people experience risks differently, due to their specific gendered identity. However, as pointed out by Wisneret et al. (2003), “it is not female gender itself that marks vulnerability but rather gender in a specific situation”. Finally, it is also important to note that we cannot limit our analysis of vulnerabilities to gender, as these play out in a complex intersection with other forms of discrimination linked to, among others, race, age or ethnicity. 

Gendered vulnerabilities and supply chains

Gendered vulnerabilities in productive labour (paid labour) cannot be analysed in isolation from other types of discriminations tied to class, race or sex. Indeed, vulnerable workers are often subject to various forms of discrimination which, when combined, produce specific vulnerabilities. Furthermore, gendered inequalities in labour are connected to broader gender norms related to work and the role of women. This has consequences on the activities women are allowed to carry out in specific global supply chains. A study by Kruijssen, Rajaratnam, Choudhury, McDougall, & Dalsgaard (2016) on a farmed fish supply chain in Bangladesh found that through a combination of patriarchal gender norms and the gendered division of labour, women were often relegated to hidden and non-paid activities such as feeding, pond management and fish preparation. 

The importance of analysing inequalities broadly

To grasp the impact of gendered vulnerabilities at play in forced labour, we must consider the inequalities present at the household level. Patriarchal norms and expectations linked to gender must also be considered. LeBaron and Gore (2020) show that the “business models (in the cacao industry in Ghana) are configured to profit from women’s unequal position within the industry and society more broadly”. Hence, gendered vulnerabilities are linked mainly to power imbalances which start from the moment sex is assigned at birth. The unequal position that women and girls occupy in society for instance, causes power imbalances, creates asymmetries in household and domestic chores, and affects their access to land and economic opportunities. This ultimately increases the vulnerabilities of women and girls to exploitation and modern slavery. 

It is thus crucial to not only consider the gendered division of work and income, but also to analyse the extent to which gendered inequalities produce vulnerabilities, shape women’s and girls’ ability to participate in paid labour, and impact hiring and employment practices. Crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, may also impact women and girls disproportionately (especially for those at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination such as disability, ethnic origin, LBGTQIA+ or non-binary gender identity), as noted by the Walk Free report “Stacked Odds” (2020).

In conclusion, gendered vulnerabilities in relation to modern slavery and forced labour are still not sufficiently understood. This calls for further research on the subject, so that anti-slavery initiatives, such as target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, can be made more effective. 

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