NEW YORK – There are 40.3 million people living in slavery today, and 71 percent of them are women and girls, according to a new report on the global extent of modern slavery, released at the United Nations this week.
The report, conducted by the Walk Free Foundation, the International Labor Organization and the International Organization for Migration, represents the first time the three major players in combating modern slavery have come together to assess the prevalence of the problem.
The report divides the concept of modern slavery into four categories: forced labor, forced marriage, forced sexual exploitation and state-forced labor. Women and girls are overrepresented in all categories, with the exception of state-forced labor.
Of the 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation in 2016, 99 percent of victims were female, and one in five were children. Women and girls represented 84 percent of the 15.4 million people in forced marriages, and 59 percent of those in private forced labor.
Fiona David, head of global research at the Walk Free Foundation, said gender dynamics were vital to understanding modern slavery.
“The gender aspects are fascinating and really important,” she said. “We see women and girls primarily exploited in domestic work, also commercial sexual exploitation, whereas for men, it’s predominately construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing.”
David said the inclusion of forced marriage in the study was particularly important. The youngest victim they found in the data was nine years old.
“It is a little challenging for some people to think about forced marriage as a form of modern slavery,” she said. “But if you think about a nine-year-old who has no sexual autonomy, [and] is probably then put to work effectively as an unpaid domestic worker, they’re taken off to a house that is not of their choosing, with no support or protection: It’s really not very hard to see that that is actually a form of slavery.”
She says religious leaders may hold the key to preventing forced marriage, particularly of children.
“It’s faith leaders who marry people, quite literally. I think engaging with them and challenging some of the notions around gender and forced marriage is critical.”
By David’s own admission, the new figures are probably a conservative estimate of the problem. Previous surveys have put the number of people in slavery as high as 45.8 million.
The report’s data was compiled using national surveys from 54 countries, datasets from the International Organization for Migration on victims of human trafficking and child labor and reports from the International Labor Organization on state-forced labor.
David said this meant it was hard to make estimates regarding conflict zones, such as those in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, where the so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram are known to enslave local populations, with women and girls particularly targeted.
Likewise, David said it was difficult to measure the scale of the problem in Gulf states, where the “kefala” system of migrant labor leads many domestic workers to be enslaved in horrific conditions – and women who escape forced domestic labor can often be imprisoned by governments for violating immigration rules.
United Nations University’s James Cockayne, who studies modern slavery and transnational criminal networks, said the study shed valuable light on an underresearched problem. “This is a foundational piece of work,” he told News Deeply. But he agreed that we are still probably underestimating the problem.
“We have pretty strong evidence that there is a connection, if not a correlation, between the presence of conflict and vulnerability to modern slavery,” he said. “There may be more people enslaved in those areas.”
Cockayne says slavery in conflict situations can take on a different form. “One thing that’s different about slavery in those contexts is that it is increasingly being used as an ideological weapon, and a weapon of war to dominate and terrorize whole populations. This gives it a social, political and legal gravity that some of the other aspects of slavery don’t have.”
In Syria, the ongoing conflict has led to women being traded as a form of currency, and the associated refugee crisis in neighboring countries has driven high rates of child marriage among displaced communities.
What Can be Done
At the U.N. on Tuesday, 37 countries signed a call to action on modern slavery. There will be a high-level meeting at the General Assembly next week to discuss a plan of action on human trafficking. Cockayne says gender must be at the heart of the U.N. response.
“We’re beginning, through this kind of research, to understand that women and girls are overall more vulnerable,” he said. “It’s not just a question of increasing female participation in education, though that would help, we need to bring a gender lens to all four categories of slavery.”
At a national and community level, David says it’s important to change people’s minds, as well as changing laws.
“There’s a huge issue there: Changing the way people think about women and girls, changing the way people think about domestic workers – as human beings with rights and entitlements,” she said. “Realizing that girls have a right to an education, a right to their autonomy and a right to make their own informed decisions.”