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#Pressforprogress: The role of the Commonwealth in eliminating modern slavery of women and girls

by Katharine Bryant | Walk Free
Thursday, 8 March 2018 09:00 GMT

in a community in Varanasi, Northern India, which was recently liberated from intergenerational debt bondage, whereby the entire community was owned and controlled by a landlord and forced to work or be sold for sexual benefits at his discretion. Photo credit: Grace Forrest

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to empower women and girls and eliminate modern slavery

The 2018 International Women’s Day gives us all an opportunity to learn, understand, and #pressforprogress to tackle some of the most serious issues facing women and girls in the world today. And one of the most immediate challenges is modern slavery.

In 2016, 71 percent of the 40.3 million people in modern slavery were female, highlighting the central role that gender plays in the exploitation of women and girls. As a result of the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, produced by the Walk Free Foundation and International Labour Organization in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, we know that women and girls experience modern slavery differently – they are more likely to experience sexual exploitation, or to be forced into a marriage. They are also more likely to be exploited in the private economy, particularly in domestic work and in the sex industry.

Modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage have been identified as some of the critical development challenges of the next 15 years. Covered under Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 8.7, 16.2 and 5.3, countries all around the globe have pledged to take immediate action to eliminate modern slavery in all its forms.

2018 is also the year that the UK Government hosts the Commonwealth Summit. The UK Government has highlighted its commitment to achieve SDG 8.7 in the launch of the Call to Action at the 2017 UN General Assembly week. Tackling human trafficking and child exploitation is covered under the Summit theme ‘A more Securer Future’ but will also be discussed in the fora that lead to the Heads of Government meeting, including the Women’s Forum.

So, what do we know about modern slavery in the Commonwealth? We know that no country in the world is immune to modern slavery and all Commonwealth nations face serious challenges to the liberty of their citizens and those residing within their borders. We see evidence of forced sexual exploitation of women and girls within and between Commonwealth nations, with examples of trafficking of women between Nigeria and the UK, Uganda and Kenya, or Malaysia and Australia.

Forced and early marriage remain serious problems. Forced marriage is either used a tactic of war, as shown by the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, or reflects entrenched gender discrimination, as shown by the rates of early marriage against South Asia. Across the Commonwealth, organised criminal networks take advantage of vulnerable female workers, controlling them by charging extortionate fees, withholding passports and wages, and threatening deportation and violence. Driven by limited opportunities for safe migration, high levels of discrimination, and lack of respect for human rights, modern slavery holds back socio-economic development and the achievement of women and girls’ full potential.

While the problem may appear to be vast, Commonwealth nations have taken steps to respond to modern slavery. A report to be released by the Walk Free Foundation during the week of the Commonwealth Summit will reveal that many Commonwealth nations have ratified the Trafficking Protocol or have put in place legislation to combat human trafficking or the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Far fewer countries have legislation criminalising forced marriage or have taken steps to reduce the discrimination of women and girls. Much more needs to be done to tackle the specificities of forced labour and forced marriage as it applies to females.

The specificities of the problem are also part of the solution. The gendered nature of modern slavery suggests that reducing the vulnerability of women and girls would go some way to reducing modern slavery. The Global Estimates reveal the interplay between highly gendered patterns of employment and migration and the broader patterns of human rights abuses that disproportionately affect women and girls, including domestic and sexual violence and discriminatory beliefs and practices. It helps shed light where prevention and victim identification efforts should be focused.

The WFF report on Commonwealth responses to modern slavery will reveal that initiatives empowering women and girls through the provision of education and increasing understanding of human rights among vulnerable communities led to a reduction in early marriage rates. This has played out in practice - in the news this week, India has reduced child marriage by nearly half by increasing education opportunities and raising awareness of the issue. Provision of education is one way to provide opportunities for financial independence, reduce discrimination, and pave the way for the intergenerational empowerment of women. Legislative changes, such as ratifying the ILO Convention for Domestic Workers (C189), criminalising forced marriage, and raising the legal age of marriage to 18 for all across the Commonwealth will help to create disincentives for those that exploit others.

The 2018 International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us across the world and Commonwealth to #pressforprogress by pushing for access to education and legislation improvements to empower women and girls and eliminate modern slavery.

Katharine Bryant leads work on the Government Responses Index at the Walk Free Foundation