This blog post is by Gabriela Stanimirova, an Associate at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) where she supports the anti-human trafficking team with research on topics mostly focused on the online sexual exploitation of children.
Human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, are often viewed as crimes committed by men who abuse and exploit vulnerable women and girls for their own benefit. This widely accepted view creates a common global misconception that men are the main perpetrators of child and sex trafficking as well as human trafficking in general. However, if we look at familial trafficking, or human trafficking by a family member, through a gendered lens, research reveals a higher involvement of female perpetrators compared to their male counterparts. Analyzing familial trafficking through a gendered perspective provides valuable insights that could guide policy makers in implementing effective measures to help combat this type of trafficking and trafficking more broadly.
Familial trafficking: prevalence and challenges
Familial trafficking occurs when a child is sold or exploited to a third-party trafficker by their relative, primary caregiver or guardian. Court cases collected from the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (GLOTIP) case law database and recent studies conducted in the US suggest that trafficking for sexual exploitation may be the most common form of familial trafficking, followed by pornography. A growing body of research conducted in North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia and East and Central Africa reveals that the prevalence of a family member trafficking a child for sexual exploitation in exchange for money, drugs, or something else of value may have been greatly underestimated.
To date, not enough attention has been paid by both scholars and practitioners to the level of involvement of female perpetrators in human trafficking broadly and familial trafficking in particular. Part of the challenge with familial trafficking and/or female involvement in such, is that in some parts of the world, concepts of family are deeply informed by gendered social and cultural norms, creating obstacles to identifying and reporting familial trafficking at all. A study conducted by the Inter-Agency Steering Committee (IASC), a subcommittee of the East Asia and Pacific Child Protection Working Group, interviewed people in 14 different countries about child protection and shared these quotes from community members:
In this community, all families have relations with each other… if we report [this behavior to an outsider], they will think we interfere with their family issues. This would mean that we would have problems with this family afterwards. – Adult male
Once I saw that a family tied up their child with a rope, but I could not intervene because that is their family. – Adult female
In addition, familial power dynamics are often used as a means of coercive control in cases of child trafficking by a family member. As a family member, the trafficker can use emotional manipulation and coercion to instill fear, loyalty and dependence of the child. Adding to the challenge, as many cases go unreported due to the close family relationship, this can lead to the normalization of the sexual exploitation of minors for financial gain.
Profiles: victim and perpetrator
A recent study conducted in the US revealed that the average age of child victims of familial trafficking for sexual exploitation tends to be younger (11.5 years) compared to cases of child sexual exploitation by a non-family member (14.7 years). In comparison, global estimates reveal that 67% of children trafficked for sexual exploitation by a family member are aged between 15 and 17 and 72% of the victims of familial trafficking globally are female. Both the dependency and emotional attachment of the child to the perpetrator create challenges to the detection of this form of trafficking since it reduces the likelihood that the child victim will report the exploitative situation to authorities. As one child survivor shared “In order to survive, I needed to be obedient”.
The most commonly identified individuals involved in the familial sexual exploitation of children are their biological mother, biological father or stepfather, and parent’s partner. Importantly, when looking at the perpetrators’ profile, evidence suggests that familial trafficking of children has a clear gender dimension attached to it. Out of the 21 GLOTIP cases from 2013-2018 analyzed for this article that involved a familial trafficking element, 14 involved the participation of adult women as perpetrators, with all but two of the cases involving a biological mother. This data suggests that female perpetrators may be disproportionately involved in cases of familial trafficking, compared to other forms of trafficking. However, only 36% of those prosecuted for trafficking in persons globally in 2020 were female.
According to a study conducted in the US in 2019, the most widely reported type of perpetrator/victim relationship in cases of familial trafficking of children is the mother/daughter relationship. These findings are confirmed by other studies conducted in North America and Western Europe. A study published in the Journal of Crime and Justice focused on familial trafficking reported that 63% of the perpetrators were female, and 11 out of the 12 female relative traffickers were biological mothers of the child victim. Another survey conducted in 2020 with 40 criminal justice professionals in the US, found that, in the detected cases, the perpetrator was often the child’s biological mother. The reason for this prevalence may lie in the child’s attachment to the mother, the emotional dependency on them and the perceived authority of the mother by the female child victim. For example, one child survivor of familial trafficking interviewed for a study shared that,
My mother had an agreement with my father. For $450 to $500 each weekend I would go and stay with my dad and the agreement was that I would do whatever it took to make him happy. I did some very, very wrong, disgusting and dirty things that no child should naturally ever be involved in, that no teenager should ever be involved in, that no adult should ever be involved in.
Studies also reveal that many of the female perpetrators involved in familial trafficking had previously been involved in prostitution and/or subjected to sexual exploitation themselves. For these women, sexual abuse and prostitution were normalized and the bodies of their daughters became legitimate commodities for material gain. A child survivor who was trafficked by her mother said,
She’s the one that introduced me to the life when I was 13… Then she had a drug dealer that lived right next door. He was my mom’s drug dealer… My mom just, in other words, sold me to him for drugs, so he was a pimp… My mom knew everything that was goin’ on, but didn’t do anything.
An important distinction between male and female-perpetrated familial trafficking of children is that male perpetrators are very often directly involved in the sexual exploitation of the child victim compared to their female counterparts, who are usually serving as gatekeepers, granting access of a third-party trafficker to the victim. Additionally, the use of violence is more widely reported in cases of trafficking by male perpetrators. Recent U.S. studies reveal that in cases of father–daughter exploitation, the father may often both abuse the victim and exploit them. In comparison, information from secondary literature and court case material reveals only a few instances of female perpetrators directly committing sexual acts on victims.
The dynamics of exploitation
The most prevalent motive for the exploitation of children by a biological parent or a relative is usually financial gain. Studies indicate that economic hardship and psychological factors, such as mental health problems, are commonly identified in cases of familial trafficking. For the most part, female traffickers are acting in partnership with a non-family member who facilitates in some way. Information collected from secondary literature and court case material identifies economic need as the main driver of familial child trafficking for sexual exploitation by female perpetrators. In some cases, mostly reported in developing and underdeveloped regions, mothers may perceive the exploitation of their children as the only viable option for survival. According to a study on the sexual exploitation of children in Southeast Asia, eight out of ten Vietnamese girls exploited in prostitution in Cambodia had been sold by a family member for economic survival. Contributing factors include poverty, migration and armed conflict, among others. In the region of Central Africa, numerous instances of parents who had sold their children for sexual exploitation in exchange for food or money have also been reported. In some situations, children living in the global south may be the sole breadwinner in the family and perceive their exploitation as a way to support their family.
Women in dire economic situations are particularly vulnerable to subjecting their children to sexual exploitation as a negative coping mechanism. A study on the online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, as well as information from GLOTIP court case summaries, point to some mothers being both an accomplice and a victim of trafficking. The analysis of court cases describes situations in which non-family male perpetrators would lure mothers in need of financial support to sell their underage daughters for the production of pornographic material and for sexual exploitation. Other instances reveal mothers engaging in prostitution abroad and enticing their daughters to join them, mothers allowing landlords to sexually abuse their daughters in exchange for free rent and mothers offering their daughters to male perpetrators in exchange for regular monthly payments. As many of the reported cases involve cross-border trafficking, undocumented migrant women seem to be more susceptible to selling their children for sexual exploitation in exchange for protection and economic survival.
Another contributing factor reported in both the literature and court cases is the selling of children to drug dealers to support mothers’ drug habits. Cases of familial trafficking of parents with substance use disorders who used illicit drugs as the currency to profit from the sexual exploitation of their children are most common in North America and Western Europe, or the global north. In one case reported in a study in the US in 2020, a mother forced her two mentally disabled daughters, aged 13 and 15, to engage in sexual exploitation to support her crack cocaine addiction. Another case from the same study reported a mother selling her 11-year-old daughter to a drug dealer in exchange for heroin. In the global south the main drivers of familial child trafficking for sexual exploitation are related to economic need and survival, whereas in the global north those drivers are more often connected to substance use disorder and drug addiction of the relative trafficker.
Familial trafficking as a type of human trafficking is not explicitly mentioned in the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its Protocols. Still, trafficking by family members as an aspect of human trafficking has been included in regional legal instruments, such as the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The Philippines, in particular, has significantly improved its legislative framework to fight online child sexual exploitation and abuse with familial trafficking included in the country’s expanded Trafficking in Persons Act of 2022, with more than 10 cities across the Philippines drafting laws to support law enforcement and child protection efforts.
Despite some progress, challenges to the implementation of global legislation and judicial responses remain. GLOTIP court cases of familial sex trafficking of minors from the Philippines and Argentina highlight two examples where the courts concluded that the child victim voluntarily agreed to comply with the trafficker (a family member). This points to a lack of universal recognition that the role of consent is irrelevant when it pertains to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In some cases, it was even difficult for local authorities to distinguish familial trafficking from other types of human trafficking.
Familial trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children
Recently, the involvement of female perpetrators was widely documented in cases of online sexual exploitation of children. Studies show that cases of technology-facilitated trafficking of children were more likely to involve a family member compared to non-technology-facilitated cases. According to a study conducted in the Philippines in 2021, 87% of cases of sexual exploitation of children online involved at least one female perpetrator, usually the mother of the victim. Data points to an increase in the number of familial trafficking cases on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased economic vulnerability, the closing of schools, and an increase in time spent online by children. In addition, the pandemic obstructed direct contact of anti-trafficking organizations with child victims or potential victims of trafficking, making detection even harder.
In some countries of Southeast Asia, particularly where English is widely spoken, it has also been documented that perpetrators from higher-income countries, usually men, took advantage of the increased economic vulnerability caused by the pandemic by contacting mothers through social media and enticing them to sell their children for online sexual exploitation. Through technology, offenders order and pay for specific abuse to be perpetrated by the mother and viewed remotely. In some cases, girls are coerced into participating in sexual encounters with third parties, while the mothers record the acts of exploitation. In addition to the increase in online familial trafficking by female perpetrators, ECPAT International warns that the lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions could lead to another issue. Online offenders may now travel and groom families affected by the economic fallout to exploit their children in-person, establishing an ongoing relationship going forward. A recent ECPAT International study in the Philippines suggests that families may earn up to PHP300,000 (close to $5,700 USD) a year from exploiting their children online. In comparison, the average monthly salary in the country was reportedly PHP 45,000 (about $850 USD) as of 2020. Foreigners in these scenarios are the desperate answer to grinding poverty and selling their children is the best means of survival.
There are only limited studies available on the gender dimension of familial trafficking, revealing the need for increased research, especially in countries where recent and ongoing economic vulnerabilities incentivise this form of trafficking for desperate mothers and families. Most of the research on the topic has been conducted in North America and Western Europe, and little of it has focused on understanding the prevalence, risk factors and characteristics of perpetrators. In addition, research findings point to the need for gender-specific prevention strategies targeted at women in economic need, immigrant and refugee women, as well as women with drug use disorders, in order to better understand and address the gender dimension of familial trafficking in all of its forms. Understanding and conducting research into the role women play in familial trafficking is important in order to better incorporate appropriate gendered responses in the criminal justice system, both at a national and international level. It is only by understanding these push factors at a global level that we can hope to stamp out this insidious form of human trafficking.
Gabriela Stanimirova is originally from Bulgaria and worked as an Associate at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). There she supported the anti-human trafficking team with research on topics mostly focused on the online sexual exploitation of children. She is also closely involved in the Tech Against Trafficking (TAT) initiative, which aims to advance the use of technology to fight human trafficking. Gabriela served as an intern within the human trafficking research team at UNODC, where she supported the research phase of the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022. She also occasionally writes blog articles for Global Risk Insights.