In the second part of my interview with Tsitsi Matekaire – program manager of Equality Now’s End Sex Trafficking program – we talked about the UN General Assembly’s “Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons” and about some promising examples of national legislation aimed to prevent sex trafficking from across the world.


Maria: On June 21st this year, Equality Now participated in a panel discussion related to the UN “Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons.” What were some of the main concerns/priorities that came out of that discussion?

Tsitsi: The “Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons” was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 2010 and it is reviewed every four years. The next review took place on 27th and 28th September 2017. We were part of a panel discussion on the 21st of June this year, which we hosted with UN Women and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Two other trafficking organizations – CAT-W and Apne Aap – were also partners. The goal of the panel was to initiate discussions around sex trafficking in relation to the Global Plan of Action review process. One of the main issues that was highlighted at the discussion was the fact that sex trafficking remains one of the most dominant forms of human trafficking, and is a growing concern.

The Palermo Protocol articulates four types of trafficking – trafficking for sexual exploitation, trafficking for labor, trafficking for slavery and slavery-like practices and trafficking for removal of organs. The statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (the UNODC – the UN agency putting out the annual trafficking reports) show that trafficking of women and girls for sex trafficking is a serious concern. Seventy-one percent of all trafficking victims are women and girls, and the majority of them are trafficked for sexual exploitation. We highlighted this at the meeting. We wanted to make sure that, as the General Assembly reviews the trafficking Plan of Action, they are also recognizing that sex trafficking is one of the main forms of human trafficking.

Another interesting thing about the review this year is how the Global Plan of Action is strongly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide a powerful framework to address all of the forms of human trafficking. Within the sustainable development goals, there are specific targets that speak to the need for member states to be taking action and to address the different forms of human trafficking. There is goal target 5.2, which talks about protection of women and girls from sex trafficking. Then you have goal target 8.7, which is looking at all forms of human trafficking and modern slavery, linking that to forced labor. Then you have goal target 16.2 that is looking at preventing all forms of trafficking, and exploitation of children. So, if you look at the Global Plan of Action and the SGDs and link those together, that become a very powerful mechanism at the international level for states to be addressing human trafficking and ensuring that there isn’t one form that takes precedence over another and that all forms of trafficking have equal priority.

Trafficking is a form of organized crime where traffickers and others benefit from exploiting women and girls’ vulnerabilities. People buying sex create the demand and fuel the sex trade and the trafficking of women and girls. Governments need to ensure the protection of victims and punish traffickers, but also put in place laws that punish and deter the buying of sex.

 Maria: Are there any countries you would recognize as leaders in the fight against sex trafficking? What sets these countries apart?

Tsitsi: Looking at the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report is a good place to start. These reports look at each country and rate them on their degree of compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and their efforts to address trafficking. The Tier 1 countries are those that are fully complying with international trafficking legislation. If you look at the world map, these are mainly Western European countries, the US, Australia. One example of a Tier 1 country from Africa is Nigeria. Then you have your Tier 2 countries, which are those that do not fully comply but they are making significant efforts to address the problem, in terms of prevention, protection and prosecution of offenders. The majority of countries in the world have a Tier 2 rating. These include a lot of the countries in Asia, South America and Southern Africa. Next, you have the Tier 2 watch-list countries that do not fully meet TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance. Finally, there are Tier 3 countries. These are the countries that do not fully meet TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

I think we are seeing a strong movement across the world to have trafficking legislation in place. According to the 2016 TIP Report, in 2003, when the Palermo protocol came into force, there were 33 countries globally that had some sort of legislation that criminalized trafficking in place. In 2016, this had moved to 158 countries, and most of these countries had some legislation criminalizing all forms of trafficking, including sex trafficking. So that seems like a good start in terms of a worldwide push to have legislation, even if a lot of the legislation is still fairly new.

Between 2005 and 2010 we saw lots of countries coming up with trafficking legislation and within that group, you can point to some countries as good examples of addressing issues in terms of protection and prosecution. However, they are not always doing everything right, so even the countries in Tier 1 would still have some aspects that they need to be addressing. I can use the UK as an example. The UK is seen as a country that is almost fully complying with the requirements for trafficking legislation and is categorized as a Tier 1 country under the US TIP Report. The country passed a legislation that has put in place mechanisms for victim identification and a referral system for victims to be able to access services. However, even in the UK, the government has had the tendency to link trafficking to immigration control which, in turn, has made it very difficult for some victims to report being trafficked, out of fear of being deported. So you may report being trafficked, and the next thing you know, the government is investigating whether you came to the UK legally or not and may deport you without actually addressing the fact that you are a sex trafficking victim.

On the other hand, a country like Sweden, in addition to providing constructive legislation for victim identification and support, also penalizes the buying of sex which has, in turn, reduced the trafficking of women and girls into Sweden. I strongly feel that countries that do better in terms of actually curbing sex trafficking are also specifically criminalizing the buying of sex, which fuels trafficking.

The prosecution of traffickers is another aspect of trafficking legislation that has a constructive impact. Generally, prosecution and convictions are very low. The UNODC report for 2016 shows that only 11 percent of countries have between 51 and 100 convictions a year and 24 percent have either no convictions at all or 10 or fewer convictions per year. So I think there is movement but there is still a lot that needs to be done to ensure that national trafficking laws are fully implemented and that victims are fully supported.

Maria: Your website highlights the Nordic Model of addressing sex trafficking as a good example of approaching the problem. What is the Nordic Model and how many countries have adopted it to date?

Tsitsi: The Nordic model law was first enacted in Sweden and is really grounded in a gender-equality argument. It is based on the understanding that women and girls endure systemic inequality and injustices in terms of access to resources, access to education, economic empowerment, and so on. In many countries, girls do not have an equal starting position in society, which leads to discrimination and increased vulnerability to exploitation. In Sweden, that understanding resulted in a legal system that moved away from criminalizing women in prostitution because, in a way, these women are victims of discrimination and inequality themselves. That’s not to say that they don’t have agency, but it does mean that they are actually victims of a system that is making it difficult for them to have their lives go in a different and more positive direction.  So, you cannot criminalize people who are being discriminated by the system. Instead the Nordic Model challenges the notion of male entitlement and power over women’s bodies or marginalized men’s bodies. It shifts responsibility and criminalizes the buyers who create the demand for women’s sexual exploitation and fuel the trafficking of women and girls to meet that demand. The buyer is exercising power over women, the majority of whom are not freely choosing to do the work that they do, and would rather have had their lives go in a different direction if the opportunity to do so had been available to them.

I think this is extremely powerful in terms of trying to shift societal perceptions around the position of women and men in society and in terms of shifting responsibility from the woman to the person who is actually exercising their power over someone else in an unequal society.  So, if you start from a gender equality perspective, then you can see why you would have a law that criminalizes the buyer and not the women, and actually ensures that women who wish to exit prostitution have access to support services that would enable them to have a proper without being re-victimized by the system.

Maria: Do you think it’s helpful or harmful to frame a discussion of sex trafficking in the broader context of violence against women?

Tsitsi: If you look at sex trafficking and prostitution through the lens of systemic gender inequality, poverty and male domination, then it is a certainly a form of violence against women, and it makes sense to have a Nordic model type of legislation to address it. There may be some women who want to engage in prostitution but no one chooses to be trafficked and sexually exploited. And we know that the majority of women work in prostitution because they need to make a living and they don’t have any other options, which to me is a symptom systemic violence against women. The physical and psychological experience of prostitution is a form of violence against women, where a man with financial means exercises power over a woman who would not have gone through the experience if she had other choices.

I think what is interesting about the violence against women argument is that it brings in that power analysis and issues of intersection – the continuum of exploitation, from childhood to adulthood, that leads to sex trafficking, its relationship to prostitution, and the focus of placing the responsibility on the perpetrator and not on the one who is experiencing the exploitation. It feels to me that perhaps it may be easier for people to grasp all of that if it is framed from a violence against women perspective.

Maria: Last question – how did you get interested in that line of work?

Tsitsi: My entire career has been focused on women’s rights and on violence against women. When I completed my law degree in Zimbabwe, rather than going to practice, I joined a women’s rights organization and started working on violence against women and on the interaction between the law and the ability of survivors to access their legal rights. I spent many years working with women and helping them understand their legal rights and how to claim them in courts. In the UK, I worked in an international women’s rights organization that also focused on violence against women, although not on trafficking and prostitution or sexual exploitation. Coming into Equality Now just felt like a continuation of my work on issues surrounding violence against women.


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