CEDAW: End trafficking in women and exploitation of prostitution of women

Global Submission by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and XX non-governmental organizations from ## countries to the CEDAW Committee on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration, 72nd Session

On the occasion of the 72nd session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, we the undersigned, submit this contribution to the general discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration within the framework of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW or the Convention).

We are women’s and girls’ rights advocates, including sex trade survivors, and frontline organizations that serve victims of trafficking and exploitation in the sex trade.

We congratulate the CEDAW Committee for its commitment to drafting a General Recommendation on Article 6, which requires State Parties to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women,”[1] understanding that the aim of such General Recommendation will be to provide guidance to State Parties to the Convention on the measures they must adopt to ensure full compliance with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women and girls.

CEDAW was the result of decades of tireless work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, with the critical input of the global grassroots and national movements dedicated to ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls.

Also known as the International Bill of Women’s Rights, the Convention mandates State Parties to address all situations in which women are denied equality with men. We trust that this upcoming General Recommendation on Article 6, will, in accordance with the CEDAW Committee’s mandate, continue to guide State Parties in how equality can be achieved, through appropriate measures, including legislation, and within the universal framework of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person.[2] Furthermore, noting the goals of the General Recommendation under elaboration are to interpret the definition, scope and expectations of State Parties’ obligations in relation to Article 6 of the Convention, it is key for the CEDAW Committee to guide State Parties in such interpretation ensuring that the human rights of women and girls are respected and protected in accordance with international law and the full respect and protection of the human rights of women and girls.[3]

The CEDAW Committee must recognize that traffickers overwhelmingly target women and increasingly, girls.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that women and girls comprised 72% of detected victims of trafficking in persons (2016).[4] Of detected sex trafficking victims worldwide, 94% are women and girls and 35% of detected labour trafficking victims. It is critical to underline that women and girls who are trafficked for labor exploitation are also acutely vulnerable to sexual violence, sexual exploitation and to the exploitation of prostitution.

Girls account for 23% of all trafficking victims detected globally (2016), up from 21% in 2014, and 10% in 2004. [5]

The CEDAW Committee should highlight the possible links, but not the causality, between Trafficking in Women and Girls and Migration

The proposed General Recommendation is entitled the “Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration,” although we note that the phenomenon of migration and trafficking in women and girls are two different concepts, addressed under different national and international legal frameworks. State Parties must enact and implement measures that address the appropriate identification, protection and assistance, inter alia, to migrants, the majority of whom are women, especially vulnerable women. Governments must also enhance the humane and orderly management of migration and the effective respect for the human rights of migrants in accordance with international law.

For instance, in 2017, more than 68.5 million people were displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence.[6] Not all of these individuals were trafficked. Reports show that along the migration trajectory and particularly through irregular migration channels, migrant women face an increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, including trafficking, inducement into and exploitation of prostitution, rape, extortion, kidnapping, homicide, disappearance.[7] However, migration, unlike trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution, does not in and of itself impair or nullify the enjoyment by women of human rights, and furthermore, Article 6 does not address the migration of women.

The CEDAW Committee has noted that trafficking in women and girls is exacerbated during and after conflict owing to the breakdown of political, economic and social structures, high levels of violence, increased militarism,[8] and armed groups.[9] Conflict and post-conflict situations, natural disasters, and environmental crises can create particular vulnerabilities and situations of abuse of power for women. Such affected regions can become locations of origin, transit, and destination for the trafficking and prostitution of women and girls. The trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls at the hands of State and non-State actors can also be connected to drug trafficking, armed groups, extractive and tourism economies, governmental corruption, money laundering, and other illicit economies.[10]

However, we urge the CEDAW Committee to underline that the “context of global migration” creates specific vulnerabilities in migrant women to trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution, but not to link global migration with trafficking in a framework that would lead State Parties to infer that women migrate for purposes of prostitution. Such a framework would weaken State Parties’ ability to combat the trafficking and exploitation of prostitution of women and girls around the world and would directly contradict United Nations instruments protecting women and girls against sex-based and gender-based violence and discrimination.[11]

While migration does not, in and of itself, include acts that “inflict physical, mental or sexual violence,” trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution rely on the perpetuation of such human rights abuses. Up to 90% of women exploited in European brothels and other establishments in which prostitution occurs are women who are not from the country in which such sex establishments operate. Coupled with reports indicating that the quasi-totality of prostituted women are under the control of a trafficker, pimp or other third-party exploiter, the rational deduction is that these women are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. Should the CEDAW Committee tragically conflate this group of trafficked and prostituted women with women who migrate for the reasons enumerated in other contexts, the Committee would inadvertently condone the sex trade and its expansion by inferring that women can “migrate” for the sex trade, an unlikely situation that contradicts the provisions of CEDAW.[12]

The CEDAW Committee must examine Article 6 within the existing frameworks of human rights principles, international law and the totality of the Convention itself.

As the CEDAW Committee recognizes, it cannot comment on Article 6 in isolation of itself, but must do so relying on the provisions of the Convention and the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendations. In addition, State Parties did not draft Article 6 in isolation, but through recalling and reiterating fundamental human rights principles, resolutions, and international laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others of 1949,[13] and the Palermo Protocol, and other UN instruments to which they have pledged implementation.

Violence and discrimination against women and girls remain a global epidemic of proportions that are far from fully documented. Article 1 of the Convention states that discrimination against women and girls is understood asany distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women,…on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.[14] Recognizing that trafficking in women and girls is rooted in gender-based discrimination and that victimization further compounds negative outcomes in all areas of life, it is critical that the CEDAW Committee recall articles that address sex-based discrimination in its General Recommendation on Article 6.

The CEDAW Committee has recognized that culture and tradition can restrict women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights. Embedded in stereotypes, customs and norms can give rise to myriad legal, political and economic constraints on the advancement of women.[15] Prostitution, like so many other forms of culturally accepted manifestations of violence and discrimination (such as female genital mutilation, domestic violence, child marriage, breast ironing, widow burning, sexual harassment, etc.), is widely accepted by the public and rarely are the perpetrators held accountable.

One of the most severe, devastating, and escalating practices that result from stereotyping gender-based violence is the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls, including prostitution, sex trafficking, the Internet marriage brokerage business (“mail order brides”), “sugar dating” sites, pornography, and sex tourism. The sex trade and its promoters, through the media and other forms of communications, promotes, normalizes and glamorizes male violence and discrimination against women and girls. The use of women and girls in prostitution and pornography is a harmful cultural and customary practice that occurs globally, perpetuating violence and promoting negative stereotypes against them. The impact of the sexualization of women and girls promotes sex inequality and dehumanization across all public and private spheres. The normalization of objectification leads to increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence, along with the increased demand for prostitution and pornography.

Furthermore, while evidence of violence, discrimination, degradation, dehumanization and pervasive harm perpetrated against women and girls exploited in the sex trade is growing, it remains key for the CEDAW Committee, as it did in 1992, to urge State Parties “to compile statistics and research on the extent, causes and effects of violence, and on the effectiveness of measures to prevent and deal with violence” against women and girls in the sex trade. The development of such measures is key in undertaking and implementing policies to overcome “attitudes, customs and practices that hinder the recognition of the exploitation of prostitution, as stated in Article 6 of CEDAW.  The health consequences of prostitution cannot be limited to the prevention and protection from HIV/AIDS. State Parties and international agencies must also invest in developing research and compiling data on the pervasive physical and psychological harms women and girls suffer in prostitution, caused by undetected and often fatal diseases, substance abuse, gynecological ailments, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorders, suicides and murder, as a few examples.

We therefore urge the CEDAW Committee, in its General Recommendation on Article 6 to add to the title of the General Recommendation the “exploitation of the prostitution of women” in accordance with Article 6 and to recall international human rights instruments and law, and its own jurisprudence through its General Recommendations, to:

We also call upon the CEDAW Committee to reiterate and reinforce its General Recommendations and other United Nations resolutions, declarations and instruments, which together recognize that:

  • the definition of discrimination includes gender-based violence, that is, violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately.
  • traditional attitudes and the harmful stereotypical (such as cultural norms that lead to the notion that women “choose” or “migrate to” the sex trade) perpetuate the status of women and girls as subordinate to men and boys; and that allowing such stereotyped roles perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion”, which may justify gender-based violence.[16]
  • systems of prostitution are forms of control of and abuse of power over women, which State Parties must not deny or ignore irrespective of whether the sex trade falls under legal or illegal commercially profitable enterprises; and that the effect of such violence “deprives women of the equal enjoyment, exercise and knowledge of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” [17]
  • the links between widespread harmful practices involving violence or coercion, such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, as prejudices and practices that may justify gender-based violence as a form of control of women, as does trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution.
  • the drive for the demand for prostitution relies on the exponential growth of the sex trade, including pornography and prostitution, casinos, bars, escort establishments, streets, strip clubs, phone sex, and massage brothels, and through advancement in technological innovations, access and anonymity in the use of content and persons, including the Internet, marketing and advertising, social media platforms, mobile technology, “sugar dating” sites, micropayment systems, webcams, and many other forms through which exploiters use tools of  deception, recruitment, coercion, and to sell women and girls to sex buyers.[18],
  • women’s access to justice, or lack thereof, confirms that varying and intersecting forms of discrimination against women are inextricably linked to other factors that affect their lives with an aggravating negative impact, including the exploitation of prostitution. [19]
  • harmful traditional and stereotypical attitudes contribute to the proliferation of pornography and the “depiction and other commercial exploitation of women as sexual objects,” which contributes to sex-based discrimination and violence.[20] That acute vulnerabilities, including poverty and unemployment, increases the occurrence of trafficking in women, including sex tourism, domestic servitude, forced marriages, all of which are incompatible with the rights and dignity of women.[21]
  • women in systems of prostitution, whose components are listed above, are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual violence, including rape.[22]

Through the General Recommendation on Article 6, the CEDAW Committee must remind State Parties of their obligations under the Convention, including to:

  • develop “appropriate protective and support services” for victims, as well as “gender-sensitive training of judicial and law enforcement officers and other public officials.[23]
  • enact measures, legal and policy responses that protect the rights of women and girls; as well as repeal all legal provisions that discriminate against women, which enshrine, encourage, facilitate, justify or tolerate sex-based and gender-based violence against them; including in customary, religious and indigenous laws.
  • eliminate structural factors that render women vulnerable to trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution, pornography, such as gender discrimination, sex inequality, racial, ethnic and socio-economic inequalities, and systematic violence against women and girls;
  • develop specific protective and punitive measures to protect vulnerable women in situations of war, armed conflict and occupations, which often lead to the exploitation of prostitution and other forms of sexual violence. [24]
  • take measures to ensure that all women and girls have equal access to health care.” Women and girls trafficked and exploited in prostitution have limited access, if any, to ongoing medical care, including gynecological, internal, psychological, psychiatric, dental or general overall medical services and have no way of maintaining current health records. [25]
  • develop studies and collect data on the impact of unwanted, monetized sexual invasion and psychological coercion on women’s health. Reports show that girls and women sexually exploited in the pornography and prostitution industries suffer domestic violence, physical assault, harassment, rape, and the psychological sequelae of these traumatic stressors: posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts and successful suicides, and substance abuse. The links of childhood abuse, family abuse and neglect, as high risk factors to trafficking and early abuse in prostitution; and a higher death rate and/or murder are linked to sexual exploitation. Without the collection of such data, it is impossible for State Parties to uphold its obligations under CEDAW and report measures that have been or must be taken to overcome such violence against women and girls in the sex trade perpetuated by exploiters and sex buyers.
  • encourage State Parties to introduce education and public information programmes to help eliminate prejudices, which hinder women’s equality as well as “specific preventive and punitive measures […] necessary to overcome trafficking and sexual exploitation.[26]
  • support State Parties’ efforts toward achieving the SDGs, integrating a human rights and gender equality perspective. UN Member States, the overwhelming majority of which are State Parties to CEDAW, are investing in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Agenda 2030, adopted by the General Assembly in 2015, which include multiple targets aiming to foster regular and safe migration, eradicate human trafficking, and combat organized crime. The General Recommendation based on Article 6 would contribute to the achievement of such goals, including target 5.2, which calls upon member states to “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual, and other types of exploitation”.[27] If the 2030 Agenda truly envisions leaving no human being behind, considering the sex trade as a viable source of labor for women and girls would render any efforts toward realizing sustainable development goals, including the right to health, education, freedom from violence and discrimination, null and void.
  • review legislation and policy to remove discriminatory provisions, such as gender-specific migration regulations and the criminalization of trafficking and sexual exploitation survivors including forbidding areas that facilitate the exploitation of prostitution; protecting women from harm inflicted by State and non-State actors which may occur outside their territories using international cooperation against organized crime; and establish effective public policies and programs for women to exit prostitution

The United Nations Secretary-General stated, “every woman and every girl has the right to a life free of violence. Yet this rupture of human rights occurs in a variety of ways in every community. It particularly affects those who are most marginalized and most vulnerable.”[28]

We commend the CEDAW Committee for reviewing Article 6 on Trafficking in and the Exploitation of Prostitution of Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration and remain available, individually and collectively, should the Committee members require additional information.



[1] Office of the High Commissioner, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 3 (1979), https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/cedaw.pdf.

[2] Noting that the Charter of the United Nations reaffirms faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women, CITE Charter of the United Nations ; and “that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex, CITE Universal Declaration of Human Rights; The Beijing Declaration, adopted by the 4th World Conference on Women in 1995, states that “violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace.” BPFA CITE

[3] The United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children defines “trafficking in persons” as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs; (b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used; (c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article; (d) “Child” shall mean any person under eighteen years of age. (emphasis added)

[4] UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2018, p. 10. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2018/GLOTiP_2018_BOOK_web_small.pdf

[5] Id.

[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2018). Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2017, p. 2.

[7] CITE

[8] General Recommendation No. 30 (2013), para. 39; A/71/303 (2016), paras. 25, 40, 66;

[9] UNODC Report the link between armed groups and human trafficking, noting how armed groups often engage in trafficking in their territories of operation, coercing women and girls into marriages or sexual slavery. 

[10] Under Article 10(c) of the Palermo Protocol, State Parties have an obligation to cooperate by exchanging information, in accordance with their domestic law to the means and methods used by organized criminal groups for the purpose of trafficking in persons, including the recruitment and transportation of victims, routes and links between and among individuals and groups engaged in such trafficking, and possible measures for detecting them.

[11] Including Article 3(b) of the Palermo Protocol, which states that the “consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used…” CITE


[13] Approved by General Assembly resolution 317 (IV) of 2 December 1949

[14] CITE

[15] State Parties are therefore obliged to work towards the modification of social and cultural patterns of individual conduct in order to eliminate “prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women” (article 5).

[16] PARAGRAPH 11 of 19) Article 5

State Parties shall take all appropriate measures:

(a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women;

[17] (PARA 11)

[18] A/71/303 (2016), para. 51; A/73/263 (2018), paras. 26-27.

[19] Article 17 and GR No. 35 (2017) – Eliminating gendered based violence against women: Recognizing

[20] (PARA 12)

[21] (PARA 14).

[22] (PARA 15).

[23] Paragraph 24(b) of the General Recommendation 19

[24] (PARA 16)

[25] Paragraph 19 of GR 19; article 12 of the Convention

[26] (recommendation No. 3, 1987),

[27] CITE for Target 5.2

[28] Remarks by the Secretary-General on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 22 November 2017.


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