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A significant step forward: CEDAW Committee adopts new General Recommendation on Trafficking in Women and Girls

The UN flag is depicted in the foreground with the flags of other countries behind it.

Equality Now welcomes the new General Recommendation on Trafficking of Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration which was adopted by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee on 6 November 2020.

The CEDAW Committee is the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the CEDAW Convention. From time to time, the Committee makes recommendations on any issue affecting women which it believes governments should devote more attention to.

Over the past two years, Equality Now and our partners actively engaged with and contributed to the CEDAW Committee’s consultations on the development of this General Recommendation on trafficking in women and girls. We applaud the Committee for coming up with a  comprehensive set of recommendations grounded in international law and human rights principles, which we believe will help governments to strengthen their legal, policy, and other measures to end trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls. 

Trafficking of women and girls is widespread

Across the world, human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes of our time, and women and girls are the most affected. According to the United Nations Organ on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 72% of all trafficking victims are women and girls. Trafficking for sexual exploitation is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, worth nearly $99 billion each year. UNODC reports that 94% of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls. Young girls are particularly interesting to traffickers because of men’s interest in sex with young girls, and they are also easier for traffickers to coerce and control. An exploited child grows into an easily exploited woman who can be sold over and over again for profit. Yet in many countries, governments’ implementation of anti-trafficking laws and policies remain inadequate to address this global problem, and traffickers and other perpetrators involved continue to exploit with widespread impunity. 

This new General Recommendation is historic and significant in that for the first time since the adoption of CEDAW in 1979, the Committee has elaborated on the obligations of governments in implementing Article 6 of the Convention which calls on governments to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”. 

Trafficking is gendered and rooted in structural discrimination and inequalities  

The General Recommendation acknowledges that widespread trafficking in women and girls persists because of a lack of appreciation of the gender dimensions of trafficking, which leaves women and exposed to different types of exploitation, including sexual exploitation. It is significant that the Committee specifically reinforces the understanding that trafficking and exploitation of prostitution of women and girls “is unequivocally a phenomenon rooted in structural sex-based discrimination, constituting gender-based violence” and that it is exacerbated in the context of social and economic injustices, displacement, discrimination in migration and asylum regimes and in situations of conflict and humanitarian emergencies which all disproportionately affects women and girls. The General Recommendation encourages governments to address underlying structural gender and socio-economic inequalities that make women and girls vulnerable to exploitation. This is more urgent than ever in the current COVID-19 pandemic which has exposed and exacerbated poverty and gender and structural inequalities. 

The Committee’s affirmation that trafficking in women and girls is rooted in sex-based discrimination and is a form of gender-based violence, and consequently a function of abuse of male power and privilege, is critical to ensuring that responsibility and accountability is placed on perpetrators, and not on women and girls whose rights are being violated and need to be supported to exit sexual exploitation. Across all societies, persisting norms and stereotypes regarding male domination, and their control and power over women and girls enforce patriarchal gender roles and male sexual entitlement which generate the demand.  

Addressing the demand that fosters exploitation and leads to trafficking

Therefore, it is encouraging that the General Recommendation underlines the pressing need to address the demand as it fosters exploitation and leads to trafficking. The Committee makes a strong call for governments to investigate, prosecute and convict all perpetrators involved, including those on the demand side. In the context of trafficking for sexual exploitation, women and girls are trafficked predominantly into the sex trade and into prostitution in particular. It is mostly men who seek to pay for sex. Their demand for commercial sex is leading to and fueling trafficking in women and girls for sexual exploitation. 

By calling on governments to address demand, the General Recommendation recognizes other existing international law including the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons which calls on governments “to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”. Also, the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others provides that “prostitution is incompatible with the dignity of a human being” and endangers the well-being of those exploited and their communities. 

The growing problem of online trafficking and sexual exploitation

For millions of women and girls who are facing unprecedented levels of sexual violence and abuse through the internet and digital technology, we welcome the General Recommendation’s focus on the use of the internet and digital technology to facilitate trafficking and sexual exploitation. In the absence of any meaningful regulation, digital technology, and the internet provide traffickers the tools to exploit with impunity.  Online resources such as open and classified advertisement sites, adult websites, social media platforms, chatrooms, extending into the dark-web enable traffickers to interact with an increasing number of potential victims. The internet has completely changed the face of trafficking with an increase in access for buyers and sellers and a rapid increase in exploitative and abusive activity at a global scale.  

The General Recommendation identifies a range of measures to address this dimension of trafficking and exploitation, which we believe will help in creating new rules for the internet and making the internet safer for women and girls. The CEDAW Committee expressly calls for social media and messaging platform companies to be held responsible for their role in exposing women and girls, as users of their services, to trafficking and sexual exploitation. The General Recommendation also calls on digital technology companies to increase transparency and use their capabilities in big data and artificial intelligence to detect online recruitment and in the identification of traffickers. 

The global and multi-jurisdictional nature of online sex trafficking and sexual exploitation requires global cooperation, and the General Recommendation specifically calls for information sharing between digital interactive platforms in order to facilitate international cooperation in combating trafficking and sexual exploitation and assisting law enforcement efforts. 

These various recommendations provide a foundational framework for governments and civil society as we tackle the big questions on how best to formulate laws, policies, and practices that will increase online safety for women and girls, and other vulnerable people, whilst at the same time holding perpetrators accountable. Governments must also resolve how to balance between the fundamental values of an open internet (which include privacy and freedom of expression rights) and the protection and safety of users from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation 

Implementation of the General Recommendation is required for meaningful change 

This comprehensive General Recommendation provides many more recommendations on supporting victims and survivors and is a huge step in communicating governments’ international law obligations to prevent and address trafficking in women and girls and provide support and protection to those affected. It is timely and responds to the emerging issues of our time such as the negative impacts of global migration, conflict and humanitarian crises, and the increasing use of the internet and digital technology in trafficking and exploitation of women and girls. 

Ending trafficking in women and girls requires collective action – everyone has a role to play. Equality Now calls on governments everywhere to reflect on the recommendations and strengthen their national laws and policies, and work with civil society and survivors to design and implement programs that will best respond to the needs of millions of affected women and girls around the world. Citizens can also call on their local MPs or representatives to highlight the recommendations in the General Recommendation when discussing and formulating national and local level responses.