Trafficking of women and girls: Central America’s human rights crisis

It was a typical ruse. Claudia Ayala, a young Costa Rican woman, was promised a cleaning job in the U.S. Claudia trusted a man she had known for years, her pastor, to organise everything. She had no reason to doubt his assurances that she would be well paid and looked after by a good family. But after being smuggled across Central America and Mexico, and into the U.S, Claudia soon realised that there was no cleaning job to be had.  Instead, she was forced to work as a prostitute in Texas.   Despite being held against her will and living in appalling conditions for months, Claudia was lucky as she managed to escape back home to Costa Rica.

Last year, Claudia, along with eight other women, told her story as part of a radio series, El Silencio Duele, produced by a Costa Rican-based NGO, Voces Nuestras, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).  These nine women are among thousands of people who are trafficked across Central America each year in what is a growing problem throughout the region.  In a 2012 report,Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime cautioned that human trafficking is an increasingly profitable market for Central America’s drug cartels. Indeed, the trafficking of people is extremely lucrative in other ways. According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, an estimated annual profit of US$31.6 billion is made from the exploitation of trafficked forced labour and 4.1% of this profit is generated in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Disproportionately affected by human trafficking, women and girls are being denied their basic human rights. Exploited and forced to work in the sex industry, domestic servitude or as beggars, thousands of women and girls in Central America are denied their right to freedom, to be free from violence and inhumane treatment, and to health.  And, they are either trafficked southward to Costa Rica and Panama where they are forced into work or taken to countries outside the region, or they are trafficked northwards to Mexico, the US and Canada.

In 2012, the UNODC’s Report on Global Trafficking stated that, on average, 55%-65% of human trafficking victims are women and 27% are minors. The International Labour Organization estimates that globally women and girls account for 40% of people forced into exploitation such as manufacturing or domestic service, and that 98% of victims are forced into sexual exploitation. Women and girls are predominately trafficked for prostitution, but others are used for pornography and stripping.  According to NGO Casa Alianza, no fewer than 15,000 children are victims of Guatemalan child sex trafficking networks.  End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), a network of NGOs working for children’s rights, reports that in Guatemala, girls aged between eight and fourteen were sold for between US$100 and US$200, primarily for sexual exploitation.

Women and girls are also being trafficked for the purposes of forced labour in domestic households, for agricultural work or begging. Often, women believe they have been offered a legitimate paid job but on arrival are held and forced to work for nothing.  According to CAWN’s 2012 Trafficking of women briefing paper, this is what happened to Karen. Living in a rural village, Karen went to work for one of her father’s cousins in the city after he offered what seemed like a good opportunity. Karen left believing that she would be looked after but when she got there she was forced to work long hours for no pay. Living in filthy conditions, emotionally abused and held against her will, Karen suffered in silence until she managed to escape with the help of a friend.

Both Karen and Claudia’s experiences are far from unique. But because of the clandestine nature of human trafficking the true number or victims in Central America is unknown. However, what is more clearly understood is that complex and deep rooted societal problems such as entrenched poverty, inequality, and corruption contribute to women and girls being disproportionately affected by trafficking.  Deep-rooted discrimination against women is also a fundamental issue in Latin America. For example, Teresa Ulloa, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean, told theGuardian in 2013 that “The Latin American convention remains that women are to be used for men’s pleasure. This means that if they can’t access our bodies through force, they can do so with money, creating a demand for women and girls. If we could create policy on human trafficking that has gender equality at its core, then we would be tackling demand. If there was no demand for slaves, there would be no supply.

Although most countries in Central America have adapted existing laws or created new ones to tackle human trafficking, the lack of resources has often led to a failure to prosecute traffickers and to provide adequate support for victims. The Issue of corruption and complicity of state officials, and in some cases their lack of understanding of human trafficking, also represents a major stumbling block. But, there are several grass-roots organisations, such as The Central American Network of Women (REDCAM ),  RedTraSex , Foundation Rahab , Casa Alianza, and The Fundación Sobreviventes ,  which are working diligently to provide support for victims of trafficking and abuse. They also promote gender equality, and develop strategies to combat violence against women. There are also several international NGOs and campaigns which aim to raise awareness about trafficking, such as the United Nations Blue Heart campaign and the Call and Live programme, a regional campaign to combat trafficking which was set up by Ricky Martin, the IOM and the Inter-American Development Bank.

But the trafficking of women and girls continues to be a growing problem throughout Central America and different actions have to be taken at a local, national and international level.  Within the region, underlying factors affecting women, such as inequality, poverty and discrimination, urgently need to be addressed. More research needs to be conducted on trafficking and forced labour at both a national and international level.  And, grass-roots NGO’s providing education, support and research must be provided with the resources to aid them in their vital work of combating human trafficking so that no woman or child is forced to repeat the experiences of Karen and Claudia.


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