¿Que pasa aquí?

Maybe it’s a good idea to ask exactly what sex trafficking is. How does the reality of it compare to our mental image? Did Hollywood get it right?

A simplified version of the U.N. definition of human trafficking (of which sex trafficking is a subset) is as follows: Trafficking is the recruitment or transportation of individuals by means of force or coercion for the purpose of exploitation. Simple enough. But the ways in which this definition manifests itself are manifold. As Denise Brennan from Georgetown University puts it: “…generalizations can be frustratingly imprecise.” (1) To wit: A young woman in Colombia may be happy (despite an illegal border crossing) to hear of a position as a nanny in Panama, but end up in forced prostitution. A young girl in India may be sold by her parents to known traffickers. A Moldovan woman may be aware that she is being hired and transported as a prostitute but unaware of the beatings she will endure or the lack of control over her earnings she will experience. A Nepalese girl may be physically abducted. So the common mental image of an unaware innocent being physically abducted and forced into prostitution (as in the recent movie Taken may be spot on for some cases, but wide of the mark for many others.

Blaming the victim

But, your lesser angel may whisper, maybe these women really know what is going on and are just ashamed of their choices later?

How could a girl be tricked into this? If a girl is told she will be working as a nanny or a housekeeper or a waitress and her trip will be paid for and her salary will be more than she could have hoped for…surely she must know better? Not necessarily: a lack of awareness of the risks, a desperation for work, a trust in others, a lack of opportunities and a horribly practiced and convincing pitch all contribute to her making a decision (inasmuch as she has one) that may affect her life profoundly.

And she absolutely may know what line of work she is getting into.She may have been a prostitute previously. She may know that she will be transported illegally across borders. But she in no way will know the conditions of the life she is about to enter. She will not know that she may be raped and beaten in order to assure her compliance. She will not know that she may be forced to service a dozen men a day. She will not know that she may have her documents taken. And she will not know that she may be forced to pay interest on the cost of her transportation, which keeps her in these conditions for years.

The scope

OK, fine, but this horror doesn’t affect that many women, does it?

How widespread is this problem? According to Laura Lederer at the U.S. State Department, “Human trafficking is the third-largest global criminal enterprise, exceeded only by drug and arms trafficking…” (2) Think about that. You know how huge the drug business is and the extraordinary efforts that have gone into curtailing it. And you may know the size of the players behind the purchase of illegal arms: these may be countries. Trafficking is in the same league. But unlike guns, which may be purchased a hundred at a time, a woman’s services are purchased one at a time. Of course, this the economic impact. How do you quantify the human suffering associated with this much profit? Although, for a number of reasons, estimates are difficult, the U.S. State Department, in it’s most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report states that there are approximately 12.3 million people in “…forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution…” around the world (3). How is this possible? How is this tolerated? Let’s consider that next.


The question must be asked: if everyone knows about drug trafficking and the arms trade and the trafficking of women and girls is of the same order of magnitude, and if, as suggested by Catharine McKinnon (4), women are human, why don’t we hear more about it?

Would we if this problem involved primarily men? A contentious question, to be sure, but it must not be avoided. In many locations globally, women are disenfranchised, repressed and disempowered. They are granted fewer rights than men, have fewer educational opportunities and have less access to legal services. And yet in many communities they are expected to be the breadwinner and the primary caregiver. This lack of equal human rights must be considered one of the root causes of trafficking — and addressing it is as critical as the need for improving economic opportunity, education, legislation and prosecution.

“But if the women aren’t to blame,” you may be thinking, “What about the customers? Don’t they bear some responsibility? After all, they’re the ones that are paying for these women!” Good question.

The problem of demand

If the flow of women can be likened, as distasteful as it is, to a flow of consumer goods, then the role of the “consumer” must be considered.

Debating what must be done, if anything, about the demand side of this system has been the single most divisive element in people’s attempts at fighting trafficking. Most people would agree that coercing a woman into prostitution, abusing her and not allowing her to return home, should she so choose, is wrong. But if a woman is not coerced, is free to leave the business at any time and acknowledges the risks, should the laws leave her alone? It’s a religious debate: Side 1: “Prostitution is inherently demeaning to women and so should be abolished. No woman would willingly submit to the depredations of prostitution.” Side 2: “Don’t be patronizing. Women can decide for themselves whether or not to enter into prostitution, so it should be legalized and regulated and their rights protected.” Side 3: “Being a prostitute should be legal but paying for the services of a prostitute should be illegal.” Goodness. It’s not that the demand side of the system is irrelevant. But reducing this complex system of rights, laws and biology to Manichean moralizing does nothing but distract us. Perhaps Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have it right when they say, “The abolitionist movement would be far more effective if it forged unity in its own ranks.” (5). So then. What’s to be done?


The U.S. conceptualizes their strategy with three “P”s: prevention, protection and prosecution.

Prevention is obviously the most efficient way to address this problem. While some women are physically abducted and some are sold by their parents, in many cases at least there is a decisive (albeit perhaps fleeting) moment in which a woman has a choice. Through increased public awareness, this simple choice can prevent lives from being shattered. But an alternative path must be available: Increased economic opportunities, job training and basic education can provide these alternatives.

Protection involves getting support to the survivors of trafficking in the way of special visas, counseling and community reintegration. In some countries, including the U.S., women are not granted any special privileges unless they testify against their traffickers. This Morton’s Fork gives her the choice of being deported and possibly retrafficked or testifying against her traffickers in court, with all the perils that that entails.

Prosecution is difficult for a variety of reasons: the corruption (or collaboration) of local law enforcement, the demands of coordination between countries with varying laws, the criminalization of the victim, the fear of retribution, etc. But to prosecute these crimes in the first place, there has to be a law in place, right? Correct, but the laws have to be passed in each individual country. Fortunately, there is an international framework that requires ratifying countries to create these laws. The U.N.’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children has been ratified by a majority of world countries. This Protocol commits the ratifying states to preventing and combating the trafficking of persons, to punishing those guilty of these crimes and to protecting the victims of this trafficking.

Of course, there’s much more to say, but we hope that this brief introduction gives you a feel for the problem.

Ninlil Project’s place

So how does Ninlil Project fit in? Recognizing that prevention is the most efficient means of eradicating this scourge, Ninlil is currently focusing on producing a series of public service videos aimed at girls and young women which are designed to educate them about the risks of trafficking and the steps that they can take to prevent it. The first series will be aired in Colombia. (See also Current Projects.) The message of the videos is simple: Sometimes all it takes is an awareness that if a job offer is too good to be true, it probably is.

What can you do personally?

First of all, spread the word. Trafficking is a global travesty and the more light that is shed on it, the less it will thrive. Second, take heart. Although trafficking is pervasive and entrenched, a consideration of the case of historical slavery may offer reason for hope. In that situation, once people were made aware of the atrocities being committed and once governments heard the people’s voices, and after a lot of hard work, the beginning of the end of legalized slavery was at hand. Finally, support the organization of your choice. There are many grassroots, governmental and inter-governmental organizations, each with a different focus: some provide job training, some assist with community reintegration, some provide counseling, some focus on rights education and some are concerned with legislation. Some provide on-the-ground volunteer opportunities. But all need your support.

There’s more to learn

For more information, please look at the resources listed in the More Info section. And thank you for your interest.


(1) Brennan, Denise. “Methodological challenges in research with trafficked person.” Data and research on human trafficking: A global survey. Geneva: International Organization for Migration (2005):39.

(2) Tully, Andrew. “Experts Say Human Trafficking a Major Problem in U.S.” Payvand Iran News. http://payvand.com/news/08/jul/1124.html. (7/13/08). Accessed 8/17/10.

(3) U.S. Department of State. “Trafficking in Persons Report.” (2010).

(4) McKinnon, Catharine A. “Are Women Human?” Are Women Human? and other International Dialogues. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2007):41-43.

(5) Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (2009):25.