With millions of women and girls bound in the international sex trade, sex trafficking has earned a fitting epithet: modern-day slavery.
It’s difficult to estimate just how many women and girls are impacted by sex trafficking, in part because you can’t easily divide sex workers into those who are working voluntarily and involuntarily. But in their book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn estimate that around 3 million women and girls (and a small number of boys) worldwide are currently enslaved in the sex trade — bought, held and forced into commercial sex work against their will. This figure may even be on the conservative side, as it doesn’t account for people who were intimidated into prostitution or the millions more under 18 who can’t consent to working in brothels.
The U.S. State Department’s tally is lower, with estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty percent of those trafficked are women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation. But these figures overlook the millions more victims who are trafficked annually within their own national borders.
John Stanmeyer / VII
Whichever figure you choose, the outcome is the same — far more women and girls are shipped into brothels annually now, in the early 21st century, than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the 18th century.
And the problem of sex slavery is getting worse.
Trafficking for sexual exploitation is one of the fastest-growing organized crimes, generating $27.8 billion each year. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Indochina, which opened up markets for commercial sex, and globalization have added to the problem. So has the fear of AIDS, leading some customers to prefer younger girls, whom they think are less likely to be infected. Some men target virgins, believing the girls can cure AIDS.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
As the sex trade continues to grow, it also self-perpetuates. Once girls are sold into sex slavery, they often know nothing else and are so stigmatized that they remain in the trade, even when that means selling sex voluntarily. Drugs and other addictions can also work to keep women tied to brothels.
There is no easy solution to ending the complex issue of sex trafficking, but there are small steps you can take. With enough political will, we could begin to hold governments accountable not only to pass laws but also to enforce them. Officials worldwide should be under pressure to shut down jail-like brothels, investigate criminals buying underage girls, and crack down on corruption and trafficking across borders.
Every abolition movement begins with expressing our discontent and demands.
See jewelry and bags made by survivors of sex trafficking at the Made by Survivors store, whose mission is to end slavery through economic empowerment and education, giving survivors and people at the highest risk the tools they need to build safe, independent, slavery-free lives.
Check out Half the Sky Movement's partners who are working to end sex trafficking here.
Top left photo : Bruno Barbey / Magnum