How to Create a Breakthrough in the Fight Against Modern Slavery? Invest in the Economic Agency of Women and Girls
from Women Around the World

How to Create a Breakthrough in the Fight Against Modern Slavery? Invest in the Economic Agency of Women and Girls

Iraqi women prepare food in kitchen run by Mahiya Yousef, who created her business in order to help women looking for work in Mosul.
Iraqi women prepare food in kitchen run by Mahiya Yousef, who created her business in order to help women looking for work in Mosul. Khalid al-Mousily/REUTERS

This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog series on human trafficking, in which CFR fellows and other leading experts assess new approaches to improve U.S. and global efforts to curb trafficking and modern slavery. This post was authored by Laura Gauer Bermudez, director of evidence and learning at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery; Yuki Lo, head of research and evaluation at Freedom Fund; and Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, chief operating officer and head of global research at Walk Free.

Women and girls comprise an astonishing 71 percent of the estimated 40.3 million people living in modern slavery, and the problem may be getting worse. The deep roots of gender discrimination and the pandemic’s disproportionate social and economic harm on women is increasing their vulnerability and exploitation. Their risk of modern slavery is inextricably linked with gender inequality, as noted in Walk Free’s Stacked Odds report.

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If we are to address modern slavery at scale, we should then also confront the gender inequality and power imbalances that perpetuate it. One entry point is building the economic agency of women and girls. Significant evidence suggests that when women hold greater decision-making power and agency over their own economic resources, positive benefits reverberate across societies. These benefits are significant, helping to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to prevent modern slavery. So what is economic agency, how does it relate to modern slavery, and what interventions should be prioritized to maximize gains?  

Economic agency can be defined as having power and choice over how one earns, saves, manages, and spends his or her money—a seemingly simple concept but one that is not afforded to millions around the globe. For those who are victims of human trafficking, forced and bonded labor, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation, the freedom to choose has been denied. Work is extracted involuntarily, debt bondage has appropriated ultimate control over a laborer, marriage is agreed upon without consent, and sex is a traded commodity directed by a third party. At the center of these scenarios are individuals whose agency has been strategically minimized, ensuring they have limited control over their circumstances, including their livelihood and earnings.

The link between economic agency and modern slavery was highlighted in the United Nations University (UNU) recently released report Developing Freedom, which argues that an economic agency lens would help to bind modern slavery concerns into broader development agendas. This connection furthers the work of development economist, Amartya Sen, who argues that development should not be viewed solely through the lens of GDP, but should also be measured in opportunities and freedom of choice. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen argues for the use of economic, social, and political freedoms as indicators of successful development. In Sen’s vision, development does not come at the expense of people’s rights and freedoms; rather, these rights and freedoms are integral to development.

Modern slavery is the explicit restriction of an individual’s rights and freedoms, and this restriction currently affects women and girls at a greater rate than men and boys. This is largely due to entrenched gender norms that continue to put women and girls in a position of diminished power. Discriminatory laws and social customs can prevent women from inheriting land and assets, opening bank accounts without a male signatory, accessing loans, holding identification documents, traveling freely, and working without spousal permission. This power dynamic affords women fewer opportunities for formal employment and channels them into unpaid or low-wage work, much of which is in unregulated or poorly regulated sectors, such as domestic work, residential care, apparel and textile factory labor, hospitality, and cleaning services, among others.

Gender discrimination and lack of autonomy affect a girl from birth. In some communities, decisions about how long to stay in school, who to marry, and how to earn a livelihood are made for adolescent girls and young women, not by them. Based in a prejudiced belief that women have limited economic value, every decision made for her, across her life span, further limits her ability to gain economic independence (Fig.1).

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Image shows a chart demonstrating how different factors make women and girls more susceptible to modern slavery.

To disrupt this discriminatory system, we need to recognize and transform the power imbalances that devalue and exploit the contribution of women and girls to our economy and society. This may sound like a lofty goal, but there are specific gender-focused interventions that can improve the economic agency and broader autonomy of the world’s women and girls. These interventions can advance progress on the SDGs while simultaneously and substantially reducing modern slavery: 

  • Remove legal and procedural barriers so that women and girls can claim due protection and entitlements, including an equal right to hold identification documents, own assets, and access basic healthcare and education. Lack of birth registration certificates and other identification documents often limit the ability of women and girls to access protective entitlements, such as cash assistance, vouchers, subsidies, and fee waivers. Access to social insurance and the formal financial system is often dependent upon these identification documents, making this a necessary first step to building the economic agency of women and girls and reducing their vulnerability.
  • Transform social norms and establish role models to raise the aspiration of girls, broaden employment options for women, and increase their decision-making power. Non-profit organizations such as Promundo have established grassroots campaigns to rethink gender stereotypes and promote gender equality, tackling issues that include child marriage and commercial sexual exploitation. The private sector can also play a role in developing more diverse role models by showing women in non-traditional jobs, such as engineers and machine operators, as well as encouraging male employees to balance work with more caregiving duties.
  • Expand financial inclusion efforts such as financial literacy, micro-savings, and access to credit to allow women greater independence and control over their financial health and futures. One billion women remain excluded from the formal financial system. While mobile money platforms decreased the number of unbanked individuals significantly over the past decade, there is still much work to be done to integrate women into the formal financial system, including by changing business rules that treat women as inherently “riskier” customers than men, providing universal access to mobile phones, and increasing representation of women working in financial institutions. 
  • Improve conditions in female-dominated industries that rely on a chronically underpaid and precarious labor force, especially in the garment, domestic work, and adult entertainment industries. For example, government efforts to formalize an informal sector would grant women workers access to protections such as occupational safety and health regulations, minimum wage, and health care. Further, training and certification programs can upskill women into higher paying roles, while on-site childcare enables many women an opportunity for labor force participation. For migrant workers, products such as SafeStep provide women greater transparency and control in the recruitment and migration process while also establishing a mechanism for filing a grievance if one’s rights have been violated.
  • Reform judicial systems that ignore the plight of female victims of exploitation, trivialize their testimonies, and deny women and girls’ access to fair compensation. Training of police officers can help undo biased norms that lead to victim blaming and affect their decision to report, file, and prosecute violations suffered by female victims. When prosecuting cases of sexual exploitation and forced marriage—where women and girls make up the majority of victims—special measures should be put in place to protect the identity and dignity of victims. Also, harms caused by sexual and psychological abuses, which can be difficult to quantify, should be factored into sentencing and compensation decisions.

Women and girls, especially those with lived experiences of exploitation, should play a principal role in deciding how these interventions are delivered and not simply as advisors and participants. Inclusive monitoring mechanisms should also be in place so that women and girls can provide feedback, and if necessary, hold organizations to account if well-intended plans fail to materialize. Men and boys should also join as allies in these efforts, as they often perpetuate unhealthy norms and are also harmed by the restricted economic agency of women and girls, which is estimated to cost between 7.9 and 21.3 percent of GDP in low- and middle-income countries.

By highlighting the linkages between ending modern slavery and the economic agency of women and girls, we hope to show that modern slavery is not simply a human rights or law enforcement issue. Having millions of women and girls whose labor is chronically undervalued and prone to exploitation is an impediment to economic growth and shared prosperity. Breaking the cycle of modern slavery requires collaboration between anti-trafficking and development actors and joint investment in the independence, freedoms, and opportunities of women and girls.

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