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The need for a gendered approach to exploitation and trafficking

Victimisation of women is still dominant in policies and discourse on trafficking. Could a gendered approach that accounts for the structural factors creating women’s vulnerabilities effectively challenge this?

A farm in Sicily. SarahTz/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Anti-trafficking measures have long focused on women’s exploitation in sex work, downplaying that fact that trafficking occurs in diverse types of work and also involves men. In so doing, they have overlooked the sexual vulnerability of people who are exploited in sectors other than sex work. While most policies today recognise that women, men, transgender people and children can be trafficked into diverse forms of exploitative labour, the gendered and sexualised victimisation of migrant women is still a dominant paradigm in the field. More specifically, as Julia O’Connell Davidson has pointed out, while men are generally viewed as active subjects capable of making independent and voluntary decisions, women are seen as passive and powerless agents who are vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, exploited migrant women are more commonly viewed as ‘victims of trafficking’ whereas exploited migrant men are frequently deemed irregular migrants or, such as in the case of migrant EU citizens, often do not receive assistance and protection.

The distinction between ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘labour trafficking’ in diverse legal instruments and policies has fostered the centrality of the sexualised victimisation of women. In addition to suggesting that sex work cannot be deemed work, this distinction erroneously conveys the idea that sexual exploitation does not amount to forms of forced labour. It also leads to overlooking the diverse human rights violations that women involved in the sex industry may experience and the right protections to which they should be entitled. Moreover, this distinction has prompted the adoption of different strategies to address trafficking in the sex industry sector than in other sectors. In particular, while in the latter case more attention has been given to the development of measures aimed at protecting the rights of migrant workers and improving their working conditions, in the sex industry repressive and assistance-based approaches are still prevalent.

Sensationalist representations of migrant women’s abuses

It is worth noting that the serious exploitation of migrant women in sectors other than the sex industry usually gains public and institutional attention only when accompanied by cases of sexual abuse, which are reported in the press with sensationalist and voyeuristic undertones.

Emblematic in this regard is the situation of the Romanian women employed in the agricultural sector in Ragusa, Sicily, many of whom are subjected to serious labour exploitation and sexual abuse by their employers. Although local institutions know about the prevalence of abuse in this industry, for many years they have not done anything to prevent and combat it. This changed slightly in October 2014, when a national newspaper published an article sensationally titled “Raped in the silence of the countryside in Ragusa: the new horror of the Romanian slaves”. Following this piece, national and in particular local institutions started to pay attention to the abuses suffered by these women and they tried to address the root causes. However, this article also provoked public and institutional sensationalist reactions, which risked diverting attention from the full range of rights violations that these women experienced and the structural factors that allow for such cases of exploitation to take place at all.

Moreover, as often occurs in cases of sexual abuse, local attention in Ragusa focused on the degree of consent involved in the reported sexual acts. The question ‘had the Romanian female farm workers consented or not to sexual acts with employers?’ became far more important than the complex factors that may have led women to consent to dynamics of labour and sexual exploitation. In this respect, it is quite telling that a local news website titled an article “Romanian slaves in the greenhouses: are they consenting?” and the related video reportage “Far from being slaves: are they habitués of vice?” The video displays only images of migrant women—probably Romanians—working as sex workers in the streets.

This video, on the one hand, leads the viewers to link sexual rights violations with sex work, implicitly denying that sexual abuse can happen in other labour sectors. On the other hand, it conveys the stereotypical idea that Romanian women have the ‘vice’ of working as sex workers. The combined effect is to suggest that the Romanian female farm workers consented to the sexual acts in question and, accordingly, that the abuse they experienced was a consequence of that choice. Moreover, by using images of beautiful and sensual women, this video reveals how stories of women’s (sexual) abuses are often told through the eroticisation of women’s bodies.

Gender in legal and political instruments against trafficking

Many recent legal and political measures on trafficking and serious exploitation have stated the need to adopt a gender sensitive-approach. Directive 2011/36/EU “on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims” is the first EU directive to highlight the importance of a gendered response to trafficking. The directive recognises the gender-specific features of trafficking and states that “assistance and support measures should also be gender-specific where appropriate”. The “EU strategy towards the eradication of trafficking in human beings 2012–2016” also dedicates attention to the gender dimension of trafficking. However, as a recent report from GendeRIS has highlighted, neither the EU strategy nor directive 2011/36 offers an adequate conceptual or juridical framework of reference for following a gender-sensitive perspective. For example, they do not point out relevant international or EU documents on women’s rights and gender justice. Moreover, the EU strategy lacks specific measures aimed at addressing women’s rights issues.

Some countries, such as Italy, have overlooked the adoption of a gendered approach when translating directive 2011/36 into their national legislation. Italian legislative decree 2014 n. 24, which implements the directive, downplays gender dimensions and dismisses the need for a gender approach in addressing trafficking. Indeed, its sole reference to a gender perspective consists of a brief reference to gender violence in article one. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that this article affirms that the decree takes into account particularly the specific situations of “vulnerable persons”, such as “minors, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, disabled persons, women, especially when pregnant, single parents with minor children, people with mental illness, persons who have undergone torture, rape and other serious forms of psychological, physical, sexual or gender violence”. By defining women as a vulnerable group, the decree regards vulnerability as an essential element of women’s identity. This framing conceals women’s agency and neglects the root causes of discrimination and abuse. At the same time, categorising vulnerable people into discrete groups overlooks the systemic character of contemporary forms of exploitation and the fact that different factors—such as economic, legal, social, gendered and racial dynamics—simultaneously interact to render diverse people vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

What does adopting a gendered approach to trafficking mean?

Adopting a gender perspective in anti-trafficking laws and policies means recognising the inequalities and differences in the trafficking experiences of women, men and transgender people, addressing their diverse needs, and promoting the realisation of their human rights. This approach entails a consideration of how sexualised and gendered power relations, along with race, class, and nationality-based discrimination, help foster situations of serious exploitation.

Far from being trapped in the sexualised, gendered and racialised dichotomy of powerless ‘victims’ and ‘free’ subjects capable of exercising choice, initiatives adopting a gender-based approach should directly tackle the structural factors that leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation. At the same time, they should pay attention to the contradictory and often painful ways by which migrant women, men and transgender people negotiate power relations, personal needs, life projects, mobility, labour market regimes and contingent events. Such an approach would take into account the various and conflicting experiences of people involved in the trafficking context, adequately address their diverse needs, and avoid stereotyping gender roles and female and male sexuality.

About the author

Letizia Palumbo is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Comparative Law at the University of Palermo, Italy. She is also Research Assistant in the project ‘Addressing Demand in Anti-Trafficking Efforts and Policies’ at the European University Institute, in Florence. Her research interests include human trafficking, migration, labour exploitation, human rights and women’s rights.

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