A Mixed-Methods Study Estimating Baseline Prevalence and Identifying Perceived Gaps in Prevention, Prosecution, and Protection Response
Human trafficking is a global crime that affects every country, taking on a myriad of forms, including child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, and commercial sexual exploitation. Empirical research on sex trafficking is lacking but crucial to developing evidence based policies (Cockbain & Kleemans, 2019). The Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach’s African Programming & Research Initiative to End Slavery (APRIES) is an international consortium of anti-slavery researchers and policy advocates from the University of Georgia (UGA) and the University of Liverpool who seek to reduce the prevalence of human trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa.
APRIES contracted Kantar Public to conduct research to estimate the prevalence of sex trafficking among young women aged 18- 30 who are engaged in commercial sex in Senegal’s Kédougou gold mining region at baseline (2021) and endline (2024) and to evaluate changes over time resulting from grantee work to address service and policy gaps in prevention, prosecution, and protection.
The main objective of the research is to establish a methodologically rigorous baseline prevalence estimate of sex trafficking in Saraya and Kédougou departments that can serve as a benchmark for evaluating the extent to which anti-slavery programming and policies have effectively reduced prevalence among women. The study aims to estimate the prevalence of severe forms of sex trafficking among women engaged in commercial sex aged 18-30. Secondarily, the research will assess perceived service and policy gaps to inform interventions.
The study focuses on severe forms of sex trafficking as defined by the U.S. Department of State (DoS), which is “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act [TVPA], section 103(9)). Data collection for the study was carried out in October–December 2021.
The study draws on qualitative and quantitative data utilizing a sequential mixed methods design . Qualitative interviews were conducted with a sample of 140 respondents, including women who were experiencing sex trafficking as well as sex trafficking survivors aged 18-30 years and their parents/ caregivers, service providers, policy makers, academics, and other key informants, such as community leaders, village chiefs, health workers, and community health workers. The quantitative survey used a respondent driven sampling (RDS) approach. The final survey sample comprised 561 women aged 18-30 years who were engaged in commercial sex (375 in Saraya department, 186 in Kédougou department).
We treated Saraya and Kédougou departments as separate networks for sampling and weighting purposes. The two datasets were combined for analysis. We derived the RDS weights using the RDS-II approach in RDS Analyst software, which draws on the Volz Heckathorn weighting scheme (Heckathorn, 1997, 2002).
The qualitative interviews targeted victims of sex trafficking, whereas the quantitative survey targeted individuals engaged in commercial sex. None of the respondents reported that their age was under 18 however, several key informants suggested that it is a common practice for young women who are engaged in commercial sex to incorrectly report their age as over 18 so that they are legally able to work.
1. What are the profiles, characteristics, and scope of sex trafficking in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas?
Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas have a number of characteristics that promote exploitative practices towards women, particularly sex trafficking. Key informants and opinion leaders characterized mining towns in this region as hyper-masculine—with large populations of young male workers and social norms and beliefs that promote and condone abuse of women.
Based on the quantitative results, most victims of severe sex trafficking came from Nigeria (68%) followed by Senegal (13%), Mali (12%) and other countries (8%). Most victims of severe sex trafficking have been to school, with nearly half having attended secondary school or higher (48%). Sixty-four percent of severe sex trafficking victims reported experiencing at least one detrimental living condition before engaging in commercial sex. Over half (55%) of severe sex trafficking victims experienced domestic abuse, though only 9% reported being a victim of sexual violence in childhood.
Although no survivors in this study reported their age to be under 18, the community stakeholders (i.e., community health workers, community workers, coordinators of local NGOs, etc.) we interviewed indicated that many of the women experiencing severe sex trafficking may be minors who claim to be 18 or older. Respondents also described that recruiters would forge travel documents for minors to make them appear to have reached the legal age for commercial sex once they arrive in Senegal.
We found that young women were more often deceived than coerced into a trafficking situation, especially through false promises having to do with job opportunities and then being forced to repay debts related to travel and living expenses. For example, many survivors and victims who were interviewed reported that they were promised employment, such as catering, hotel services, and hairdressing in destination areas in Africa (Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire) or outside Africa (France, Dubai, etc.), however, when they arrived in Senegal they were informed that they would actually be engaged in commercial sex. This finding was also supported by the survey results which found that 40% of severe sex trafficking victims felt they experienced lies or false promises.
Among severe sex trafficking victims who were lied to, the top lies and/or false promises were related to work and living conditions, including the location of their job (52%), work conditions (50%), identity of real employer (46%), and housing/living arrangements (46%). This pattern was the same in both Kédougou and Saraya departments.
Once in a trafficking situation, respondents reported experiences with emotional, psychological, and social manipulation to ensure that they stayed in their situation. Few sex trafficking victims reported facing threat of isolation (5%), threat of exclusion from future work opportunities (8%), or actual physical harm (9%). Fifteen percent reported having their ID papers confiscated by a trafficker.
1.1 What is the prevalence of severe sex trafficking among young women engaged in commercial sex (ages 18-30 years) in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas?
The prevalence of severe sex trafficking was determined through responses to the quantitative survey. Severe forms of sex trafficking are defined by commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. Overall, nearly one in five (19%) individuals engaged in commercial sex throughout the Kédougou region—which is our study region and consists of Kédougou department and Saraya department—are estimated to be victims of severe sex trafficking. Severe sex trafficking is more common in Kédougou department (30% of individuals) compared to Saraya department (13% of individuals). Given that the total population of women aged 18-30 engaged in commercial sex in the Kédougou region mining communities is about 1,500, it is estimated that there are approximately 300 current victims of severe sex trafficking among this group.
1.2 What are the community and societal drivers of sex trafficking in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas?
Key informant interviews highlighted a number of factors at the community and societal levels driving vulnerability to sex trafficking. Broadly, these can be separated into economic, socio-cultural, and policy factors.
Economic drivers were highlighted in both qualitative and quantitative research. Interviewees noted that unstable and impoverished living situations, as well as lack of employment opportunities in their home countries, drove women to seek potentially dangerous jobs. Socially, the lack of a security net, in terms of a support system of family and friends, as well as means of livelihood— both in the home country and in the receiving communities—made women vulnerable to ongoing abuse. Respondents also noted that ineffective law enforcement and corruption in transit countries enable trafficking. Among victims of sex trafficking, there were some differences in risk factors for women who experienced severe sex trafficking in particular. These women were more likely to be Senegalese and much more likely to be a childhood victim of sexual violence, as well as having witnessed abuse in the household as a child. Other risk factors included having gone hungry as a child, being aware of others engaging in commercial sex, and living in a household with alcohol consumption.
1.3 What are the individual vulnerability factors for sex trafficking in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas?
Factors similar to those that operated at the community and societal level played a role in increasing individual vulnerability to sex trafficking, including economic, familial, and social factors such as lack of food, droppingout of school, unemployment, or caring for a sick relative. Respondents shared that economic deprivation—both current and during childhood—was a strong driver of sex trafficking. Going hungry was found to be a predictor of being a victim of severe sex trafficking, even when adjusting for other factors. Individuals engaged in commercial sex had 2.1× higher odds of being a victim of severe sex trafficking if they had frequent childhood experiences of going hungry compared to those with no such experience. Findings from the qualitative interviews further indicate that recruitment into sex trafficking uses/leverages survivors’ and victims’ experiences of deprivation. For example, victims reporting that they were solicited based on promises of professional jobs in fields such as hairdressing, catering, hotel work, trading, etc. Girls and women already involved in the sex trade were solicited by couriers to work in other areas. This relocation incurred debt that then had to be paid off.
Survey results indicate that being a victim of sexual violence in childhood is a strong predictor of being a victim of severe sex trafficking, with an odds ratio of 8.8 as compared to those with no such experience, adjusting for other factors. Qualitative work reinforced this—the lack of a social network, both in the home country and in the receiving communities, makes women vulnerable to ongoing abuse. At the institutional and governmental level, lack of training and funding for services and agents dedicated to the prevention of human trafficking, minimal border control, and a dearth of effective reporting mechanisms were all cited by respondents as challenges that hinder effective responses to trafficking.
Lack of other employment was the main reason why individuals engaged in and remained in commercial sex: 89% of individuals who attempted to quit (38% overall) reported “terrible lack of money, impossible to find other work.” It should be noted, though, that this figure was based on individuals currently engaged in commercial sex, meaning that women who had successfully left commercial sex were not included.
1.4 What are the individual and community resilience factors in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas?
Sex trafficking victims and survivors we interviewed in both the qualitative and quantitative components largely said they relied solely on themselves to leave sex trafficking, although some forms of support were also mentioned. In the qualitative interviews, women mentioned several strategies for coping with trafficking while it is happening: thinking about family, focusing on a time they will be able to leave their situation, trying to earn enough money to leave, thinking about a child left behind with their parents, and drawing on religious faith. The quantitative results point to moderately high levels of resilience, including relatively high levels of social support and feelings of being in control of some aspects of one’s life. Over three-fourths of women (78%) reported having at least one type of social support. Half of individuals engaged in commercial sex (50%) said they had family who were willing to help them make decisions, and just over half said they had a special person in their life who cared about their feelings and/or someone who was a source of comfort. However, nearly one-tenth (8%) of individuals engaged in commercial sex reported that they had suicidal thoughts all the time, and about one-fifth (22%) felt their life was over and they might as well end it all most or a good part of the time. Furthermore, over one-tenth (12%) of individuals engaged in commercial sex were thinking of a plan to take their own life and about different ways to kill themselves.
2. What are the perceived service and policy gaps for addressing sex trafficking in Saraya and Kédougou gold mining areas with respect to prevention, prosecution, and protection?
Suggestions to improve the prevention of sex trafficking included promoting awareness of the law among government officials(national and regional levels); training and funding services and agents dedicated to the implementation of human trafficking prevention; improving border control; creating an effective reporting mechanism; and raising awareness on how to prevent, recognize, and combat sex trafficking. Respondents noted that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are well placed to manage most of these activities. In terms of improving protection for victims, respondents noted that there is currently a strong focus on legal protection, but that it is also important to provide holistic services, including psychological care, income generation training, and facilities and services for rehabilitation of victims. It was also noted in interviews that social protection of victims is not provided for in the law—a notable gap. Victims and survivors also noted that alternative livelihoods training is a key factor for a sustainable exit from sex trafficking. A promising avenue for programming would be to support women to find sustainable, alternative ways to provide for themselves in the long-term.
Prosecution was seen as an avenue to address sex trafficking; however, legal action was seen by respondents as more reactive than preventative. Moreover, key informants shared that most prosecution seems to be focused on preventing minors from being trafficked, with less focus on adult victims. This is complicated by the fact that minors often have forged documents that falsely identify them as adults, resulting in the perpetrators getting away with lesser sentences.
Read recommendations and the full report here.