Image by Sandstorm Kenya
Sexual exploitation comes in many forms, but generally speaking it affects young, vulnerable women and girls the most. Amidst a backdrop of COVID-19, the world has started to take note of an increase in sexual violence, which has always been rife particularly in emerging and developing regions, but not as well reported.
In the last month, a heavily pregnant South African woman was found stabbed and hung from a tree in a case of suspected domestic violence. In Nigeria, all states have declared an emergency on sexual and gender-based violence against women and children following three recent horrific attacks on young women. In the UK too, domestic violence is on the rise, and this is no surprise – along with heightened health risk, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has disproportionality affected the most vulnerable in society. Kalpona Akter, Founder & Executive Director, Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity told Business of Fashion (BoF) that almost 2 million garment factory workers in Bangladesh stood to lose their jobs when international retailers cut contracts and cancelled orders at the start of the pandemic. With women and girls most affected, the ramifications of this on domestic and sexual violence has yet to be quantified.
There are multiple types of sexual exploitation that occur in the retail supply chain. Firstly, human trafficking is a dark and deeply disturbing side of retail that is rarely delved into in a meaningful way by industry players. According to The World Bank, “the COVID-19 outbreak will be pushing about 40-60 million people into extreme poverty”, and the most severely impacted will be the two billion people who work in the informal sector (mostly in emerging and developing economies). The Business and Human Rights Centre notes “Supply chain workers can be left destitute when the work stops, needing to search for even more precarious work and exposing themselves to a greater risk of exploitation. As work dries up, desperation among workers grows. In such circumstances working conditions can quickly deteriorate at the hands of unscrupulous employers. This can result in modern slavery, which includes forced labour and human trafficking.”
According to a UN-published report on the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking and modern slavery “the profound economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 outbreak is exposing the most vulnerable to risks of sexual exploitation, while current victims of human trafficking are at higher risks of being further abused and exploited. The impact of the current crisis is particularly strong on women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less and are more involved in the informal economy…. Restriction of movement, which is already inherent to trafficking for sexual exploitation, is further amplified by the lockdown measures and travel restrictions. Thus, victims of sexual exploitation might find themselves in a more desperate situation and unable to find an exit route.” Unfortunately, children too are at high risk. Unable to attend school or access school meals, the poorest in society will be the most desperate and most vulnerable to exploitation. In Tanzania, awareness has been raised of girls being coerced into sex to secure places at school. According to Anyango Mpinga, founder of not-for-profit brand Free As a Human, another form of trafficking includes child marriage to pay off debt or for labor which leads to sexual exploitation of young girls.
Although harder to identify, “sextortion”, described as “the abuse of power to obtain sexual favours”, is even more of a prevalent issue than trafficking and something we want our audience to familiarise themselves with. This term has recently been used to describe online blackmailing, however it was first coined by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) in 2018. Transparency International published a recent report into Sextortion. Delia Ferreira Rubio, who chairs the group at TI, said “Sextortion is one of the most silent forms of corruption around the world,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio, who chairs the group….”Sextortion is primarily used to target vulnerable women and girls, said the report, which cited incidents across schools, police stations, immigration centres, courts and refugee camps.”
Garment sector workers are especially at risk, being a) female and b) at the behest of their employers, c) often far from their family homes.
According to IAWJ, “sextortion is a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe… Sextortion is a global phenomenon that has a devastating impact on women and other vulnerable persons…Sextortion not only causes great individual harm, but, like other forms of corruption, has far-reaching implications for gender equity, democratic governance, economic development, and peace and stability.” And where there are vulnerable women, sextortion will be prevalent. Anyango draws our attention to poorly paid garment workers in Ethiopia, earning $26 dollars a month and working hours without breaks. A Workers Rights Consortium investigation published by Business and Human Rights Resource Centre quotes one 22 year old female worker in Ethiopia as saying “Several workers at the MAA factory reported the existence of sexual coercion, in which managers use their power, over such issues as the granting of leave, in order to obtain sexual favors.”
IAWJ’s years of important work, coupled with Transparency International’s more recent efforts, aim to do the following:
- GIVE THE PROBLEM A NAME – creating the vocabulary (sextortion) to clearly identify the crime, given the diverse circumstances in which sexual exploitation occurs. It is also designed to strip away any possible rationale given by perpetrators for what they may describe as a consensual act.
- IDENTIFY EXISTING LEGAL PROVISIONS – business owners are governed by strict laws wherever they are operating. Aside from anti-gender based violence and sexual harassment laws, sextortion (being categorized using this terminology) could be included as a crime under anti-corruption legislation. In some countries, this may carry more severity and rigorous enforcement protocol.
- COMBAT BARRIERS TO ENFORCEMENT – as with any situation, there may be difficulties in investigating or prosecuting criminals. The social and procedural barriers need investigating to understand why cases are not being brought, and there are many NGOs to assist with this.
It is important that we take action now as COVID-19 is compounding these issues by forcing more women into vulnerable situations. What can we do? If you are a customer, you can demand more from the companies you choose to shop from, to ensure they root out any such behaviours. If you are a business owner, you can take many proactive steps (we are assuming you are not the businesses cutting contracts and leaving people destitute). There are two immediate ways to mitigate the risk of sexual exploitation and sextortion occurring within your supply chain and two key risk indicators to look for:
- Communicate your policy on this topic in a clear, relevant way to employees, suppliers, and third parties you work with. This can be through training on codes of conduct and ethics, email training and onboarding procedures, all of which need to be in local language and easily understood. The message: that human trafficking, sexual exploitation, harassment, discrimination and sextortion are crimes that will be prosecuted, could lead to a jail sentence and termination of work.
- Conduct training that addresses the various forms sexual exploitation can take (including sextortion, where violence or force is not used but coercion is psychological – offers of promotions, bonuses, or simply the pay you are owed in exchange for a sexual favour).
- Conduct training that tackles the social stigma of reporting sexual exploitation, and make it clear where and how employees can report any abuses or instances where sexual favours were requested or threats made. This can be an external whistleblower hotline, the police, or where police is not appropriate, local NGOs. Each employee, artisan and worker should know where to access this information and have the means to report it safely.
The importance of knowing all elements of your supply chain can never be underestimated. If there is any part of the chain unknown to you, there can never be a guarantee that abuses are not taking place. Supply chains are increasingly complex, global and opaque, so asking the right questions is vital – not just once, but repeatedly as circumstances change. Just asking the question can bring about better behaviours, with the supplier feeling under a (proportionate) degree of scrutiny.
There are also 2 key risk indicators to look for:
Victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation will not have the ability to come and go as they please from their workplace. Their passports may have been seized, and they may be accompanied by other individuals much of the time. The circumstances of garment workers needs to be investigated where possible – particularly with regards to their independence, financially and socially.
This may sound obvious, but it is obvious when a person is being abused, scared, working against their will or struggling emotionally and physically.
It can feel daunting to access this information, or difficult to have visibility when running a business that is geographically removed from the manufacturing facilities. Pass responsibility down the supply chain and empower others to share in this vital objective.
Finally, apply pressure on governments, as consumers and citizens. Governments can ensure enforcement of the laws that exist to penalise criminal behaviours, as well as to provide a financial stimulus package that lifts millions of people out of poverty. As the UN report concludes, “The way States will react to this global crisis will set the foot for future generations and provide an opportunity to make societies fairer, more inclusive, and free from trafficking and exploitation.”
All profits from Free As A Human sales are donated to HAART Kenya’s shelter for young female survivors of trafficking.