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Ending the Trafficking of Women and Girls

March 9, 2015

Huffington Post: On International Women’s Day we rightly celebrate all that has been achieved for women’s rights globally. But we must also openly acknowledge that so much more is required to achieve and maintain real equality, particularly in those countries and environments where women’s rights are routinely ignored or trashed.

Women and girls are disproportionally affected by poverty, conflict, natural disasters and sub-standard health care. At the Freedom Fund, the world’s first private donor fund dedicated to ending modern slavery, we see too often that girls and women are particularly vulnerable to the abuse and exploitation that is modern day slavery.

In countries such as Bangladesh and Chad, millions of girls are forced to marry older men when far too young — preventing them from getting an education, putting them at risk of health complications linked to early childbearing, and often locking them into a life of domestic servitude at home.

An estimated 36 million people are trapped in modern slavery, about half of them girls and women. This crime takes many forms, all involving the abusive control and exploitation of another human being. Millions of the world’s 50 to 100 million domestic workers, most of whom are women, are at risk of being enslaved in the homes of others. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 4 million women and girls are subjected to forced sexual exploitation. Millions more are forced to work in fields and factories.

These most vulnerable in our society are exploited and marginalised for personal gain. They have no choice over the most basic aspects of their lives. They can’t choose where they work, or who they work for. They can’t choose to leave, even when — as happens far too often — they are subject to sexual abuse by their “employer.”

So what can be done? At the highest levels there needs to be greater political focus on the issue of modern slavery. That’s slowly beginning to happen. This needs to be matched by the mobilisation of much greater resources to fight this scourge, matched with much smarter research to enable those resources to be deployed to greatest effect.

This is the goal we’ve set ourselves at the Freedom Fund — to identify and invest in the most effective frontline efforts and interventions to end modern slavery.

We allocate capital to the most effective interventions, using a hotspot approach — targeting geographic areas known to have the highest concentration of slavery. We focus our efforts and bring together the best organisations working on the ground against slavery, and use our expertise and resources to help them achieve the greatest impact possible.

Our next hotspot is currently being set up in Ethiopia, specifically focused on protecting women and girls at risk of being trafficked. Ethiopia is experiencing unprecedented levels of emigration of girls and women to the Middle East for domestic work. In transit and on arrival, these women are at high risk of being trapped into slavery. Employers commonly confiscate their passports and confine them to the house, restrict access to communication, deprive them of food and sleep, pay them minimal if any wages, humiliate them, and physically or sexually abuse them.

The appalling treatment that many of them suffer across the region has been widely documented. The viral coverage of a physical assault of an Ethiopian domestic worker by her agent in Lebanon following her refusal to return to her employer’s abusive home caused global outrage.

The problem is enormous as about two thirds of Ethiopian families send at least one member to work abroad in a low-skill job. The primary driver of emigration to the Middle East is poverty and lack of economic opportunity within Ethiopia. Female Ethiopians have especially low rates of school attendance, literacy, and employment.

The Freedom Fund’s Ethiopia hotspot will promote safer migration and aims to directly benefit an estimated 7,000 vulnerable women and girls. Working at the community level the Freedom Fund will support women and girls to understand the potential dangers of migrating abroad, develop skills and income generation so that they have better options at home, and generally make better-informed choices that expose them to fewer risks.

Psychological support groups will also be created to support the rehabilitation of young women and girl returnees from the trauma of enslavement.

Social enterprise will be a key pillar in this program — from job placement schemes to micro financing, this hotspot will unlock the potential for women and girls to be financially stable without the threat and risk of exploitation. And the lessons learned here can be replicated and scaled — not only in Ethiopia but in other countries where similar dynamics are at play.

For us at the Freedom Fund, International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate all that has been achieved. But it’s also an opportunity highlight the continuing plight of the millions of girls and women subject to extreme exploitation — an abuse we fight to overcome every day of the year.

Written by
Nick Grono