Tsitsi Matekaire is program manager of Equality Now’s End Sex Trafficking program. I talked to her about her work in sex trafficking across the world and discussed some of the main challenges in addressing the problem and some common misconceptions people have about trafficking and trafficking victims.
Maria: Tell me a bit about your work on sex trafficking at Equality Now.
Tsitsi: I am Equality Now’s End Sex Trafficking Program manager. Basically, I’m responsible for the implementation of our strategy on ending sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls globally. Equality Now is an international human rights organization dedicated to ending violence and discrimination against women and girls and promoting the use of the law to advance their rights globally. We are working in four regions – US/Americas, Africa, Europe and the Middle East/North Africa.
The sex trafficking team is composed of myself and three program officers located in the different regions. Our day-to-day work involves monitoring what is happening around sex trafficking in different parts of the world and across countries, working very closely with local organizations to highlight the injustices that women and girls experience at the hands of traffickers, pimps and sex buyers, as well as looking for opportunities to raise these issues at the national level and then bring them up to the international level. We call on governments to pass laws that protect women and girls and punish perpetrators. Equality Now itself has been working on ending sex trafficking for a long time. We are one of the first women’s rights organizations to start highlighting the issue of sex trafficking and calling for international responses and international law to address the issue.
Some of the work that we’ve done has been centered around advocating for the adoption of the Palermo Protocol, which is the first international framework or legislation that defines trafficking and that highlights that trafficking for sexual exploitation is one of the main forms of human trafficking. Essentially, we are calling on governments and the international community to do the right thing and enact and implement laws around ending sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. We are working in partnership with local organizations, mainly grassroots organizations, because they are the experts on the ground have the understanding and close links with the affected girls and women and their communities. They are the drivers of change at the local level. So we really work closely with them and our role is to amplify their voices and their issues at the international level, as well as the sub-regional level (for instance the African Union in Africa or the European Commission in Europe).
In our work we aim to build narratives on which to base our advocacy, which are grounded in the experiences, perspectives and needs of victims and survivors. Grounding our interventions in the experiences of survivors and victims requires that we work with organizations that have direct contact with survivors to help us understand who the affected women and girls are, how they are affected, what their experience is, what the impact of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation has been on their lives and what they see as the solutions to change the situation. Then, from those narratives, we can build the advocacy campaigns.
Maria: What are some common misconceptions about human trafficking in general, and sex trafficking in particular, that you have come across in your work and how are these misconceptions harmful to properly addressing sex trafficking?
Tsitsi: One common misconception about sex trafficking is that it only affects foreigners. People usually think of sex trafficking as involving movement from one country to another. The reality is that sex trafficking also happens within a country or community. Sex trafficking is a global problem. It is not just a problem coming from the Global South into the Global North but it can happen within the UK, within the US, within Sweden, within Nigeria. It happens both internally and externally.
There are also misconceptions on who the victims are. It can happen to anyone, but what we know is that most of the victims are in positions of vulnerability, which the traffickers exploit. It could be homelessness or economic deprivation (for instance someone is looking for a job), or it could be isolation from family.
Another misconception is that sex trafficking has to involve movement. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking quite widely, and even includes harboring. For instance, if someone restrains a woman or a girl in a particular location within her community, even though she hasn’t really moved, that would constitute a case of trafficking.
I think some of the other misconceptions are related to what victims can do to escape their situation. People sometimes say “well, why couldn’t they ask for help,” assuming that this can be easily done. We know that the psychological hold that traffickers usually have over their victims makes it very difficult for them to report. Sometimes the victims are also thinking about the repercussions, not only for themselves but also for their families. Traffickers and pimps usually threaten that if they run away, something bad will happen to their families. In many cases, traffickers are known to victims and their families. The experience of trafficking and exploitation is so traumatic in itself that it has an impact on victims. And, sometimes, victims find it difficult to report because of the inadequate support services available to them. So, someone may end up thinking: “even if I report, would I get the proper support that I need?” It is really important that governments think about the availability of support services and the right to protection for victims. For foreigners, there is always the threat of being arrested for immigration offences as well.
Maria: In your view, is combating sex trafficking more challenging that combating other forms of human trafficking and, if so, why?
Tsitsi: I wanted to run away from this question, since it is tough to assess whether the form of trafficking that we work on is more difficult to address than others (laughing). I think this goes back to some of our key messages – looking at what we are saying around the review of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking that is currently ongoing at the United Nations. We are saying that that all forms of trafficking, including sex trafficking, should have equal priority because they all impact negatively on the victims. I mean, different forms of trafficking play our in different ways, but there is the trauma that all victims of trafficking will experience. Which is why we would want to see all forms of trafficking having equal priority.
At the national level it is sometimes easier for people to understand and be comfortable speaking about labor trafficking, trafficking of children or trafficking for organ removal than it is to appreciate that sex trafficking also occurs and to consider it equally important to address. In a country where we work, we found that the anti-trafficking task force, set up under the trafficking legislation, was dealing with many reported cases of trafficking, but was treating them as labor trafficking rather than sex trafficking. For instance, there were girls being trafficked into urban areas, initially under the pretext that they would be given good jobs in the cities, but once they got to the cities, they would experience sexual violations in addition to the labor exploitation. The trafficking task force was not necessarily highlighting the sex trafficking within that situation. Failure to properly identify cases of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation may result in victims not receiving the support and legal redress that they need.
We have also seen in the media many reports of women trafficked from African countries to the Middle East. The cases are usually reported as labor trafficking and not sex trafficking, although many women report that they were sexual exploited.
What this misclassification means is that women who need specific support services that relate to the sexual exploitation they have experienced are not getting them because the state is not classifying their experience as sex trafficking.
Maria: To be honest, I agree that it was not completely fair of me to ask you to determine whether one type of human trafficking is more difficult to address than another.
Tsitsi: Yeah, in reality there is a lot of intersection between the different forms of trafficking, which is why we have said in the context of international law and state responsibility they should all have equal priority. Then, you can be ensuring that you provide victims with the right kind of support that they need in relation to the exploitation that they have experienced.
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Next week, I’ll share the second part of my interview with Tsitsi, in which she describes the current international efforts to address human trafficking and gives examples of constructive legislation that addresses the problem at the national level.