One World – Women Lawyers’ Summit in Hong Kong 2013: Ending Human Trafficking Conference

Roberta Clarke, Regional Director of UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific and Representative in Thailand gives her statement to the One World – Women Lawyers’ Summit in Hong Kong 2013: Ending Human Trafficking Conference.

Date: Friday, November 1, 2013

I bring greetings on behalf of UN Women Regional office for Asia and the Pacific and thank you for this invitation to participate in this important summit hosted by the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers and the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, The Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong.

We share a common purpose between our agencies - ensuring women’s voices, experiences, interests and needs shape international and national laws and policies to end all forms of discrimination against women.  Indeed the legal system, and you who work within it at all levels, have a particular responsibility for ensuring state accountability. Keeping a close analytical watch over the content of law and the workings of the administration of justice, as advocates, legal practitioners, academics and policy makers, you can promote compliance with human rights norms and standards.

And because many of you also provide services to the most excluded, your work is also vital for women’s access to justice and for strengthening the rule of law.

In this conference, the organizers have taken on a singularly challenging issue. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to know accurately the dimensions of trafficking of women given its diffuse and hidden nature, we can all appreciate that trafficking is an egregious and widespread violation of human rights and like other forms of violence against women, it is under-reported and its perpetration marked by impunity.

When we think of trafficking in the women’s movement, we often think of sex trafficking. But other forms of trafficking such as labour trafficking and trafficking of person for organs are growing features of a pernicious globalization. Here are some facts:

  • Trafficking is a transnational organised crime of global reach[1]. It ranks as the world’s second largest criminal industry after the trade in illicit drugs.
  • Women account for 55-60 per cent of all trafficking victims detected globally; women and girls together account for about 75 per cent.
  • Twenty-seven per cent of all victims detected globally are children. Of every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy. In the Asia region, 39% of the victims are children.
  • Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for 58 per cent of all trafficking cases detected globally, and for 44% in Asia and Pacific region. Trafficking for labour exploitation accounts for over 50% of cases in Asia and the pacific, often for domestic servitude
  • The number of convictions for trafficking in persons is in general very low.

Trafficking in women and girls, in particular for sexual violence and exploitation has been addressed in human rights treaties consistently over the last 30 years. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), considers sex trafficking a form of sex discrimination and a human rights violation. This is reinforced by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, attached to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, signed and/or ratified by some 14 member states from Asia and the Pacific.

In the Asia Pacific region there several multilateral agreements addressing trafficking with particular attention paid to preventing and combating trafficking in women and children. At national level, at least 9 countries in the region have laws on trafficking.

Yet, the scourge of trafficking continues, indeed thrives, notwithstanding the development of international and national laws and policies. Our efforts seem puny in the light of the stories of women, mostly youth, speaking to the unbearable horrors visited on them. They are cut adrift from families, isolated, live under constant mental, physical and sexual threat and are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmissible infections, including HIV/AIDS. Their reproductive and sexual health and rights are completed compromised.

Like other forms of violence against women, we need to analyse and respond to the failures of public policy making and implementation. We need to articulate consistently that effective responses to trafficking must address the structural factors - gender inequality, poverty, unemployment, state actor corruption, lack of access to a fair and timely justice system, and globalization.

We know that those most at risk for trafficking are the poorest, those who lack access to educational and economic opportunities. Gender inequality exacerbates women’s vulnerabilities as so many are trapped in the informal economy, including as unpaid family workers, without labour and social protection and excluded from the equitable participation in the benefits of the economy. This economic need, indeed desperation which is also associated with their burden of reproductive care, leads women to take risks associated with undocumented migration and then many are caught involuntarily and trafficked into sex work.

We are also living in a world where despite our achievements in eliminating discrimination in laws and policies, the culture of inequality persists.

In a recent study done on men’s perpetration of violence against women in 6 countries in Asia and the Pacific, we get important insights that reveal the depth of the challenge we confront in transforming patriarchy. In the Partners for Prevention study[2], men who have perpetrated violence against women say that for the most part they feel no guilt or remorse for physical and sexual assaults. Indeed, these assaults are motivated by a sense of masculine sexual entitlement and by an assertion of power and control over women’s bodies.

In our focus on sex trafficking, we also ought not to lose sight of the increasing numbers of women and girls who are harmed by forced labour and debt bondage, coerced, in particular, into domestic work. This form of labour exploitation is commonplace and rendered acceptable, tolerated, encouraged by the workings of a gendered political economy that continues to devalue women’s worth and work, while exploiting their economic need.

Recently, on October 11th, we commemorated the International Day of the Girl Child. On that day, we reaffirmed that girl children have equal rights to the full range of human rights. Yet for too many, this is still aspirational. It is estimated for example that 67.1% of all child domestic workers are girls. This exploitation will have negative multiplier effects over their lifespan, denied as they are education, training, protection, security and love.

The causes and consequences of trafficking are the result of a complex interplay of structural factors- mostly of social and economic exclusion and gender inequality. But we know what needs to be done and this was reaffirmed at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women which called for:

  • The strengthening existing civil and criminal legislation with a view to providing better protection of the rights of women and girls and by bringing to justice and punishing the offenders and intermediaries involved;
  • Provision of appropriate protection and care; and
  • The acceleration of public awareness, education and training to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation.

The efforts to eliminate trafficking must be founded the rigorous enforcement by the criminal justice system, a sound migration policy and firm regulation of the labour markets.

But we must also change culture by addressing the factors that enable men to assert power and control over women, without consequences – namely gender inequality and discrimination.

The centrality of gender equality to global development, peace and security is now widely understood. In its report, the High Level Panel on Post 2015 called for transformational shifts in which no one is felt behind. Key to that is addressing the vulnerabilities of women and girls to exploitation, discrimination and violence.

As we move forward in shaping the Post 2015 agenda, UN Women calls on your support in ensuring that global commitments are reaffirmed and reinforced and that these are implemented effectively at the national level. In this regard, UN Women considers:

  • Firstly that we need to work together to expand women’s choices and capabilities so that they have options about how to live their lives (CHOICE);
  • Secondly, that we must stop the violence against women (SAFETY);
  • And thirdly, that states and non-state actors must ensure that women take full part in public and private decision-making (VOICE).

To end trafficking, we must start and sustain our outrage, saying enough! We must marshal political will evidenced by an enlargement of voices speaking out against social exclusion and gender inequality. We need to build partnerships, including especially with men and boys, asking them to join in solidarity for an enlargement of women’s freedoms and rights and the elimination of gender stereotypes that also restrict men’s choices.

We need the allocation of sufficient resources, including for the prevention of corruption and state actor complicity which too often accompanies and facilitates trafficking. And we need oversight.

Institutions such as yours can play a critical role, holding governments to account for the development and implementation of laws, policies and practices to end discrimination against women in all its forms.

I wish you a productive dialogue today and assure you of UN Women’s commitment to your work and to strengthening our partnership.



[2] Partners for Prevention: Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific, 2013. Available from http://www.partners4prevention.org/node/517