UNODC and the European Commission identify three key challenges around trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in conflict situations

On December 10, on International Human Rights Day, the European Commission and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) co-hosted an event addressing the issue of trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in conflict situations. The event marked the end of the global campaign ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’. Trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in conflict zones is particularly important to address as key challenges remain that make it difficult for women to gain protection; prosecution rates are low, protection laws are poorly implemented and extremist groups use sexual exploitation as a weapon of war.  Representative of the UNODC at the event, Yatta Dakowah, stated that 72% of victims are female, indicating the need to address this issue from a gendered perspective.


Challenges of prosecutions

Project Coordinator at GLO.ACT Asia and the Middle East, Aimée Comrie, and EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Myria Vassiliadou both highlighted the particular challenges of prosecution in human trafficking. Comrie argued that some of the challenges are for victims to give testimonies, as this often takes time, and many victims cannot identify their perpetrators. Her organisation is currently initiating a Woman’s Network, which will strive to promote women in decision-making roles and enhance consultation between countries.

Vassiliadou argued that it is essential to more efficiently look at who is profiting from trafficking for sexual exploitation and secure improved prosecution of criminals. She argues that “[o]nly a fraction of those who profit from trafficking are behind bars”. She also highlighted that prosecution of the actual traffickers is not enough; people who use – and abuse – trafficked women should also be punished, making it an illegal activity to buy services from trafficked women. Vassiliadou said that “this needs to be in the law, we say to rapists that it is okay” to rape trafficked women.

Poor implementation of laws

Another issue that was put on the agenda was poor implementation of the laws prohibiting trafficking in women for sexual exploitation. Vassiliadou highlighted that the EU already has laws to protect victims, but these laws lack implementation, which makes it difficult for victims to access their rights.

Founder and Director of Women Empowerment Organization in Iraq, Suzan Aref, also accentuated the issue of poor implementation as highly problematic, but she also gave attention to poor coordination of policy makers with civil society organisations, which must be improved.

Trafficking crimes as a weapon of war

Aref spoke of the crimes committed by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. She argues that IS has used sexual violence as a weapon of war, including rape, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution. The usage of sexual exploitation by IS has also been recognised by the UN to also occur in Libya. In 2017, Secretary-General at the UN Antonio Guterres said that sexual violence “are the tools of their [terrorist groups] trade”.

One Eritrean woman, Audit, explains how she was caught by IS in Libya when trying to reach Europe. She and the other women who were caught by IS were shortly after claimed to be the properties of their captures. She says that “each man chose the women he wanted” and says that she was often raped.

Report: Exploitation of women in conflict areas

In their ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report, the UNODC highlights the vulnerabilities people face in conflict areas, including lack in Rule of Law and state institutions to protect civilians in conflict areas and during forced displacement, which can result in people being trafficked.

Trafficking has become a strategy employed by armed groups to cause fear amongst civilians. The UNODC explains in the report that “[a]rmed groups also use sexual violence and sexual slavery as part of their operations. In some conflicts, for example, the prospect of receiving ‘sex slaves’ as a reward for joining the group is part of the armed groups’ strategies to recruit new fighters”. Therefore, women are particularly vulnerable in conflict areas, as they are desired by the fighters, both for sexual slavery but also for forced marriages.

At the event, member of the European Parliament (S&D), Franco Roberti, referred to human trafficking for sexual exploitation as a “most alarming part of human rights violations”.