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Yasmeen Hassan speaks at High-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the appraisal of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons

Flags of various countries and the United Nations flag

The following remarks were delivered at the United Nations by Yasmeen Hassan on November 22nd, 2021.

H.E. Mr. Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly, 
H.E. Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, 
Ms. Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UNODC,  
Ms. Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, 
Ms. Malaika Oringo, Founder and CEO of Footprint to Freedom

I congratulate H.E. Mr. Shahid, President of the General Assembly, on this high-level meeting.  I am honored to participate.

When I was a young activist in the early 1990s, sex trafficking was not an issue that most people were aware of. There were no laws addressing this, and the victims of sex trafficking had almost no support in escaping their ordeal.  On the contrary, they were trapped as they could be criminalized for prostitution or for immigration-related offenses and socially stigmatized for what had been done to them.  Criminal enterprises that trafficked women and girls flourished with the rise of the commercial sex trade that created increased and “normalized” demand and a lucrative market for traffickers.

Women’s rights organizations, especially those working in courts and in the provision of services, sounded the alarm bell.  We saw that the women and girls who were the victims of sex trafficking were the most marginalized, whether due to poverty, abuse, addiction, ethnicity, or laws that disempowered them on the basis of sex. We also saw that there was very little that was being done to help them.

A period of sustained advocacy with, and on behalf of, victims and survivors led to the Palermo Protocol in 2003 (which has been ratified by 178 countries) and to laws against sex trafficking in 93% of countries.  The Global Plan of Action was created in 2010 to monitor progress and in 2018 States committed to a formal review mechanism and to protect and support victims of human trafficking through the Global Compact.  

So yes there has been significant progress.  But the current trends show that sex trafficking is increasing in new and complex ways and we are failing vulnerable women and girls!

Globally, more than 50% of detected trafficking victims are sex trafficked.  77% of women and 72% of girls who are trafficked are trafficked for sexual exploitation.  Sex trafficking remains the most profitable for traffickers, who rake in huge profits in a $99 billion a year global commercial sex industry.  While countries have laws against trafficking, these are not being implemented and prosecutions and convictions remain abysmally low.  

At Equality Now, we have been working to end sex trafficking for over a quarter of a century.  We have seen many ways in which women and girls are trafficked for sex and the devastating impact on their lives, if they even make it out alive.  I will give you just a few examples. 

  • In Mexico, young girls are recruited as models from rural areas and sold into prositution by drug cartels posing as modelling agencies. 
  • Nigerian women are deceived, moved across borders and then prostituted in Italy to pay off debts incurred to their traffickers.
  • 12 and 13 year old Pakistani girls are taken on “virginity sale tours” to countries in the Gulf  while governments look the other way.
  • And in Egypt there are cases of young women repeatedly sold into “temporary marriages” by their families. 

These women and girls’ experiences have a common thread. They all have vulnerabilities – based on sex, race, economic status, or legal status – that are exploited. Narratives that these women and girls have a real choice, or that they are “migrating for sex work” misrepresent survivors’ lived realities.  

So what can we do? 

Governments must decrease vulnerability through an ecosystem of laws and policies that foster equality and provide opportunity and options.  In addition to anti-trafficking laws, laws and policies must meaningfully address inequality and the demand for prostitution, provide equal rights to education and economic opportunities, and ensure the protection of migrants and displaced people, among other things.  

And Governments must end impunity for traffickers and profiteers.  This requires more than paying lip service to the perspectives of survivors. Implementation of anti-trafficking laws is difficult and requires political will at every level, in addition to sustained resourcing, training, and, frankly, a crackdown on apathy and corruption!   

In addition, urgent and collective action needs to be taken to address new threats posed by the misuse of the internet and digital technology. The internet is enabling sex trafficking and sexual exploitation to grow at an alarming pace. This is particularly relevant in the time of COVID where traffickers have adjusted their business models to the ‘new normal’ through the abuse of digital technology.  

Governments must appropriately regulate the digital space to protect against abuse.  In doing so, they must address the tensions between rights of freedom of expression and privacy, and protection from online harms. Traffickers are hiding behind the veil of online anonymity, on platforms that operate under very limited regulation, to groom and recruit their victims. Current national and international laws are inadequate, as they have not kept pace with technological advances.  

In our new report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards, published last week, we call on governments to develop international standards, a guiding framework for international cooperation, and robust laws that address the gendered and multi-jurisdictional nature of online sexual exploitation. 

Equality Now is committed to being part of the global movement to address this ongoing scourge that devastates the lives of so many.  There is no time to waste and inaction is not an option!  I thank you!