from Women and Foreign Policy Program and Women Around the World

Human Trafficking and Slavery in the 21st Century

Krishna, 13, cuts vegetables inside the kitchen at her house in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, July 17, 2012. Krishna married her husband Gopal when she was 11 and he was 13. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

A new CFR Infoguide sheds light on the causes and costs of modern slavery around the world. 

January 22, 2018

Krishna, 13, cuts vegetables inside the kitchen at her house in a village near Baran, located in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, July 17, 2012. Krishna married her husband Gopal when she was 11 and he was 13. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Blog Post

This blog post was co-authored with Anne Connell.

Slavery, long banned and universally condemned, persists in many corners of the world, victimizing an estimated 40.3 million people globally.

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It occurs today in the gulags of North Korea, on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and in the brothels of Eastern Europe. Women and children are its primary victims and are most often enslaved in the form of bonded labor, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, or forced marriage.

Bonded labor, among the leading forms of slavery across South Asia, traps generations of families in manual labor in dangerous conditions without the means to pay for freedom. The cycle often begins with a loan request made to a landlord or business owner for expenses incurred burying a family member, treating an illness, procuring employment, or staging a wedding. Today, in India alone, tens of thousands of women are bonded into decades of manual labor in brick kilns or rice mills.

Domestic servitude, which forces someone to carry out daily chores in a private household, is another form of slavery that overwhelmingly targets women and adolescent girls. Victims of domestic servitude can be trafficked across continents and lack the workplace protections to prevent mistreatment, exploitation, and sexual violence.

Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation can also manifest as a form of debt bondage, with traffickers claiming that individuals must work in the commercial sex industry to pay for their transportation, recruitment, or basic needs. This crime frequently accompanies conflict and instability; for example, as ISIS gained control of swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, Yazidi women and girls as young as eight were forced into sexual slavery, sold in markets, or gifted by commanders to fighters as brides. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, Islamic State extremists enslaved a total of 6,417 Yazidis, and an estimated three thousand remained captive as of September 2017.

Forced marriage is another way in which children, particularly girls, are often enslaved. Girls as young as nine can be forced into arranged unions, often the result of financial transactions or deeply ingrained cultural practices. Girls account for 88 percent of the world’s victims of forced marriage, with children under the age of fifteen making up 44 percent of such marriages.

More on:

Women and Economic Growth

Women and Women's Rights

Child Marriage

Human Trafficking

Wars and Conflict

Learn more about how women and girls around the world are affected by modern slavery in the new CFR Infoguide.

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