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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

A Gender Security Approach to Human Trafficking

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Image: Grafitti portraying trafficking. Source: HAART, Kenya

According to feminist international relations theorist Cynthia Enloe, the term “trafficked woman” was introduced in the 1990s “to capture the realities of forced (whether paid or unpaid) sexual servicing.” [1] After the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe, fragile socio-political systems left millions of womxn vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

The ‘Natasha’ victim, a name given to victims from the ex-Soviet Republics, lead to the emergence of the ‘Natasha trade’, the subsequent politicisation of the phenomenon and a call for action to end transnational sex trafficking. [2] Since the end of the Cold War, thus, sex trafficking has received newfound attention as a violation of human rights. While current approaches to tackling the problem are rooted in traditional state-centric approaches to security, a feminist gender security approach promises to be more victim-centric.

Dimensions of Sex Trafficking

There are plenty of push factors that make women, girls and non-binary people especially vulnerable to trafficking – the internalisation of patriarchy, the feminisation of poverty and migration, the saturation of consumerism and commodification in a global capitalist system etc. Cynthia Enloe also detailed that countries which i) underwent economic crises, ii) were hit by natural calamities and iii) embroiled in militarised violence all have weakened safety nets for marginalised groups and therefore, are more likely to be countries wherein more womxn can slip through the cracks. [2] While the 1993 Vienna Declaration, the first global document to situate sex trafficking as a form of “violence against women”, acknowledges the use of coercion and force and these various push factors, there remains a degree of contentiousness in framing sex trafficking in terms of structural violence.

Jessica Suchland argues that within United Nations’ women’s rights documents, including the landmark Beijing document, sex trafficking is only recognised in terms of sexualised violence, “a violation largely neutralized in terms of macroeconomics and its connection to racialized imperial projects.” [3] By omitting an economic critique of sex trafficking, “the register operates in conjunction with, rather than as a critique of, neoliberal governance.” [3] Indeed, the international economic order governed by capitalism has bred chasms of inequalities and asymmetries that trigger the movement of vulnerable and marginalised people across borders in search for a better life, who ultimately end up in the hands of traffickers willing to exploit and profit off their vulnerability. This dark side of globalisation coupled with the overt and systemic violence faced by immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees amplifies the risk of trafficking between state borders. [4]

Current Approaches to Tackle Trafficking

There are two traditional approaches to combat and persecute trafficking: economic and criminal. The criminal approach considers trafficking to be a violation of the law of the state and a severe transnational crime. It advocates for criminalising related offences and using legal justice instruments in prosecuting traffickers. The economic approach takes into consideration the fact that traffickers operate on the basis of considering migration as a profiteering business. From this point of view, since the raison d’etre for trafficking is solely economic gain, the only way to prevent it is to improve the economic conditions of the vulnerable groups and regions, “as the potential victim would no longer be driven by economic necessity to seek employment abroad, thus drying up the supply of new recruits”. [4] While these approaches have their own logical merits, they both completely fail to consider the violation of the victim’s human rights, the need for justice and the violent outcomes (such as abuse and exploitation) of trafficking.

Feminist Security Approaches

Traditional, mainstream realist security approaches constitute sex trafficking as a threat to the state and the control of its borders. In turn, solutions in line with this school of thought focus primarily on the protection and survival of the state (increasing border security and deporting trafficking victims). Feminist theorists have found these patterns extremely problematic in that constituting trafficking as a security threat to the state neglects the security threat to the victims. A feminist approach to trafficking, therefore, would eschew the realist formulation of security and calls for a reorientation towards safeguarding the security of the individual. [5]

From a human security angle, as trafficking constitutes a violation of human rights, feminists call into question the state’s legal obligation to protect its citizens and point to the irony that the state often exacerbates the insecurity of the victim. This is often the case as ironclad border control policies and measures increase migrants’ and vulnerable groups’ vulnerability to violence and trafficking. Moreover, trafficked persons who are deported are prone to re-trafficking and find themselves without any kind of social or legal safety nets.

A gender security approach to sex trafficking highlights that expanding or changing the referent object of security is insufficient. Prevalent constructions of sex trafficking often “reproduce gender and racial stereotypes, discount women’s agency and establish a standard for victimization that most trafficked persons cannot meet”. Such conceptions also unjustly prioritize the sexual traffic of white women” over women of colour, as exemplified by the increased international attention to the issue following the Natasha trade as opposed to the same plight faced by women from Asia and Africa even before the Cold War. [5]

While such constructions recognise that sex trafficking is a gendered crime, because of the over-reliance of gender stereotypes in trafficking discourse, men are generalised as actors and women as victims even though a 2012 United Nations report indicated that men accounted for 25% of victims globally and one third of child trafficking victims are boys. [6] This generalisation that fails to distinguish human trafficking with trafficking for sexual exploitation, as trafficking also takes place for indentured labour, forced marriages, slavery and drug transport.

A feminist, human-rights based approach to tackle sex trafficking would also be sensitive to the interplay of economic disparities, unemployment, poverty, forced labour, forced migration and sexual slavery that are often interlinked with human trafficking. It would also focus on empowering the individual to be aware of their rights, to defend them and to prevent exposure to more danger. In terms of international treaties and organisations’ victim assistance programs, tying the needs of the victims to the security needs of the state, while well intentioned, is problematic. Consider for example that the 2004 European Council directive on the short-term residence permit for medical, legal and housing assistance provisions are conditional to cooperating with authorities in assisting in identifying and prosecuting the traffickers. [5] Doing so places victims in a difficult place of having to relive their traumas, have their case be unworthy of prosecution or pursual or even deportation. Ultimately, such policies end up protecting the interests of the state in shutting down trafficking networks more than safeguarding the rights, needs and security of the victim.


1. C. Enloe, (2014), Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics

2. D. Hughes, (2000), The “Natasha” Trade: Transnational Sex Trafficking, NIJ Journal,

3. J. Suchland, (2015), Sex Trafficking and the Making of a Feminist Subject of Analysis chapter in Economies of Violence: transnational feminism, postsocialism, and the politics of sex trafficking

4. N. Pourmokhtari, (2015), Global Human Trafficking Unmasked: A Feminist Rights-Based Approach, Journal of Human Trafficking,

5. J. K. Lobasz, (2009), Beyond Border Security: Feminist Approaches to Human Trafficking, Security Studies,

6. R.F. Rainey, (2017, April), Unseen victims of sex trafficking, American Psychological Association,,in%20three%20victims%20were%20boys

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