No clear-cut cases
A 2017 criminal case in Canada, to take one example from the report, involved an 18-year-old woman defendant was charged with the forced prostitution of two female minors, aged 14 and 16. She had instructed one of them on how to dress, and what to do with clients, and taken away the cell phone of the other, to prevent her from escaping.
She was found guilty and sentenced to eight months in prison. However, it was revealed during the case that she too was a victim of sexual exploitation. The court heard that she was under the control of a male trafficker, and had been exploited from the age of 16, and physically abused by pimps.
The case, which is included in Female Victims Of Trafficking For Sexual Exploitation As Defendants, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), shows the complexity of many human-trafficking-related cases, in which the defendant may also be a victim, who either had no alternative but to obey an order, and commit a crime, or hoped to limit their own exploitation or escape poverty by playing a role in the crime. The study also found that traffickers use the women and girls as a shield to protect themselves from being punished for their crimes.
“Ever since UNODC started collecting statistics on human trafficking 15 years ago, women and girls have consistently represented the majority of reported victims”, says Zoi Sakelliadou, a UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, who coordinated the development of the study.
“We’ve also seen that the percentage of female perpetrators of trafficking who are at the same time victims of this crime, is steadily high too, especially if compared to female offenders in other crimes. The traffickers not only earned a profit by sexually exploiting the victims, but then made them commit crimes so they could escape liability and prosecution”.
The report shows that traffickers deliberately used the “victim-defendants” in low-level roles, that exposed them to law enforcement authorities – meaning they were more likely to get caught.
These roles included the recruitment of new victims, collecting proceeds, imposing punishments, or posting advertisements for victims’ sexual services.
In very few of the examined cases did the victims engage in acts of trafficking in an attempt to move up the hierarchy of the criminal organization or for financial gain.
It was not just the statistics that led UNODC to analyse this topic, explains Ms. Sakelliadou, but also calls from law enforcement and criminal justice officials, who stressed the complexity of investigating and adjudicating cases that involve female victims of trafficking as alleged perpetrators.
The study also highlights the clear links between human trafficking and violence against women, domestic violence, and the role of intimate partner violence.
“We found that in around a quarter of the cases examined, the women had been subjected to multiple forms of violence prior to and during the trafficking process, including from early childhood”, says Ms. Sakelliadou. “We hope this study will support the law enforcement and criminal justice officials and the NGOs who handle these complex cases and support the victims.”