Trafficked women - today's Magdelenes?

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 12 Feb 2013 18:35 GMT
Author: Caroline Robinson
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Caroline Robinson is an independent trafficking consultant. The views expressed are her own.

The Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny was right to label the Ireland in which thousands of women were incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries run by Catholic nuns as ‘harsh and uncompromising’.

More than a quarter of the women and girls subjected to harsh discipline and unpaid work at 10 laundries -- accused of treating inmates like "slaves" for decades of the 20th century -- were sent there by the Irish state, an official report released this month said.

The laundries imposed a regime of fear and prayer on girls sometimes put in their care for simply falling pregnant outside wedlock. One in 10 inmates died in care, the youngest at 15.

The system and culture belongs in the past, and yet around the world women are still being incarcerated and forced to work for similar sins as mothering children out of wedlock and engaging in sex work – deviating from a harsh moral code.

Testimonies from the Magdalene women of their treatment and daily life within the laundries, bears tragic and telling similarities with those from women categorised as trafficked, living in anti-trafficking shelters in many countries worldwide.

Efforts to fight human trafficking gained huge global momentum in the early 21st Century and many governments have since established or supported the establishment of institutions designed to shelter trafficked women.

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of people for labour, it also has a historic tie to sex work as some argue that it is impossible for women to choose such a line of work and therefore all sex work is by its nature exploitation.

This reasoning along with, in many countries, a fear that women’s migration chips away at the institution of the family creates a tendency for many national anti-trafficking responses to remove all choice from women. In its place a response deemed to be in the woman’s best interests is offered, most commonly greatly restricting her movement, sexuality and independence.    

After visiting many anti-trafficking shelters in Asia, Africa and Europe over the years I have seen a broad range of such institutions.

Some offer empowering assistance to help women re-integrate into society after a deeply traumatic experience. But many more seem to punish women for such experiences - treating them as if their failure to avoid being trafficked leaves them incapable of making wise decisions.

These institutions often see women languishing for years on end, sometimes they are forbidden to leave unless they accept to be placed in the guardianship of a parent or husband, other times until they have been sufficiently ‘rehabilitated’ and the institution is certain they will not return to the sex industry.

Many of these establishments, like the Magdalene Laundries, gain funds through the women’s labour. In those I’ve visited products range from necklaces and handicrafts to laundry powder: the staff will often tell you that making such products helps the women retrieve their lost ‘femininity’.

Of course there is an indisputable need for protection and assistance to be offered to those who have been trafficked and suffered severe exploitation. Shelter can give women and men the chance to reflect and make decisions on a course of action which is right for them following deep trauma.

However for this to happen it must be an empowering environment which is open for people to leave when they wish.

Above all it must not re-victimise or re-enslave those who have suffered enough and who deserve much more.

Otherwise in years to come history will show another generation of women who have been failed at the hands of their State, just as the Magdalene women were failed by theirs.