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Human trafficking is often thought of as a modern-day form of slavery. It debases its victims into mere commodities being bought and sold to satisfy a commercial demand. It attempts to erase its victims’ identities as humans and instead views them as objects. But despite this, it is the identities of those that are forced into sexual slavery that is key in understanding the nature of human trafficking, for it is not an arbitrary crime. Its victims share commonalities in their identities, their histories, and their experiences. This is not by pure coincidence, but rather a result of widespread attitudes regarding gender, race, and socioeconomic class. That is to say, the crime itself can be more easily dissected and understood by critically examining the identities of its victims from a feminist paradigm.
While feminist theory consists of many different intertwining theoretical perspectives, the postcolonial feminist school of thought best explains the role that identities such as gender play in the world of trafficking. Similar to the concept of intersectionality, postcolonial feminism argues that the experiences of women vary along cultural, ethnic, and geographic lines. In other words, oppression is not a universal experience among women. Women living in the developing world, for example, lead different lives and experience oppression differently than more privileged women in the western world (Kegley & Blanton 46). Unlike intersectional theory and other mainstream feminist movements, however, postcolonial feminist theory tends to center around the identities and experiences of non-Western women. It is women who live in postcolonial developing nations who experience the horrors of human trafficking most severely. Regions in Africa and the Middle East serve as major transnational trafficking hubs, taking advantage of women in search of employment (Note that the term ‘women’ is used loosely here, as 50 percent of trafficked persons are minors [Lansink 46]). The majority of these women are migrants who, having fled poverty and persecution in their home countries, are coerced into exploitative labor upon arriving alone in a new country. This type of exploitation is primarily gender-based: it is more often women than men who are forced into prostitution, arranged marriages, and domestic work. This leaves them susceptible to rape and other types of sexual violence: all of which are forms of “gender-specific harm” (Lansink 47-48). While men, too, can be victims, the specific, gender-based nature of human trafficking illustrates that it as an industry is, at its core, an intentional form of violence against women.
Knowing all of this, one can attempt to search for a root cause: what is it that sets off the chain reaction that results in a woman forced into a life of degradation? It all comes back to the recurring pattern of women leaving their home countries, fleeing a multitude of forms of oppression: poverty. Lack of education. Unemployment. Abuse. Political turmoil. Women who become victims of trafficking have these things in common. Their identities as young, poor women from developing or politically unstable countries are what put them at risk for becoming victims of trafficking. Their gender, political, geographical, and cultural identities, crafted both individually and societally, put these women in positions where the only option is to leave their country: it is these same identities that make them vulnerable to traffickers. To put it simply, the systematic oppression of women in developing countries is the ultimate cause of women’s migration and, as a result, trafficking.
Some of these social factors can be further examined using principles of constructivist theory, the main focus of which is human experiences, norms, ideas, and behavior. Constructivism sees truth as subjective, varying across people depending on one’s background and experiences. Shared experiences amongst individuals breed shared norms and ideas. This is the process by which social structures such as gender and patriarchy come into being. The perceived relationship between sex and gender, for example, is the result of two unrelated concepts being associated with one another in a broader social context, so much so that it becomes a default association within that context. This means that “the determination of sex is a process of construction within a social reality that is already gendered” (Carver et al 296).
To further apply constructivism to the problem of human trafficking, an understanding of gender-related hierarchies and constructs is imperative. The majority of the world’s power dynamics (on all levels, from individual to political) exist within a patriarchy. The gender relations of a patriarchy are a result of perceived differences between “male” and “female.” Men, assuming the more powerful societal role, are able to maintain their systematic power over women through institutionalized marginalization and silencing of the female experience. This process is repeated and instilled as a norm within social contexts, until female oppression is not only normal, but inherent and natural: at this point, “[n]early all cultures have normalized the subjugation of women” (Witherspoon).
It is these so-formed institutions in place that actively exclude African women (amongst other groups) from necessities such as education, safety, work, and a decent standard of living. These are the driving force behind women fleeing their home countries in search of a better life, only to be forced into trafficking rings. It is these institutions, built upon ideas and norms, that are failing young women and girls in trafficking hubs such as Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana. In order to counter the systematic maltreatment of women in these developing countries, feminist theory argues that gender bias, gender roles and stereotypes, and the discourse surrounding gender must all be challenged. However, constructivist theory, though it affirms that new norms and ideas are indeed catalysts for change, fails to identify the factors that cause new ideas to assimilate into the dominant way of thinking (Kegley and Blanton 40).
Thus, the ideals of postcolonial feminism, with integration of constructivist thought, can be applied to the practice of human trafficking in order to analyze its social and political implications. In the study of international relations, these theories can be used as a framework for interpreting and solving such transnational problems. Postcolonial feminism provides an understanding of trafficking from the perspective and experience of its female victims, while collectivism explains the cultural norms that perpetuate the problem. The feminist paradigm, therefore, embellished by collectivist thought, provides insight into the lives of trafficked women and pushes for the challenging of social and political norms in order to fix the problem.
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