Ålands fredsinstitut
The Åland Islands Peace Institute

Hamngatan 4
AX-22100 Mariehamn, Åland, Finland
Tel. +358 18 15570
For more contact information click here.

Peace cups

Support peace work. The cup ''A Piece of Peace'' is sold to the benefit of the ÅIPI.

More information here.

Download our brochure






Publication about
the Åland Example


Read more here.


Denis Nazarenko is an assistant for research and seminar activities at The Peace Institute.

The blog is written by the peace institute's present or former staff, guest researchers, board members or invited guest writers. The opinions are the author's own.

Mariehamn 08.03.2011

In this article, I will try to outline the "push" and "pull" factors of human trafficking with a focus on the gender aspect. The trafficking is often represented as a problem of the poorest or least developed countries. However these countries can be responsible only for the supply, as poverty, chronic unemployment and domestic violence can push women into highly exploitative situations. At the same time, there is a range of social, cultural, political and broader economic factors that not only reinforce a gendered division in most societies, but also create the "demand" for human trafficking on both domestic and international levels. One of such factors is rooted in gender stereotypes. In this view, the top-down approach, described in the article, is only minimally effective. On the other hand, the work of NGOs and civil society can prove to play a positive role in preventing human trafficking.

When the word "trafficking" is mentioned people usually remember movie "Lilja 4-ever" - a tragic story of modern day sexual slavery, its despair and consequences. Or, the labour migrants being smuggled through the Mexican-USA border under incredible circumstances, or women smuggled on speedboats across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, or other obviously graphic images that have little to do with everyday life or ordinary people. However, the problem of human trafficking is not that easily defined or described. It is also more widespread and common and not that easy to resolve or tackle. One of the difficulties is that trafficking is not as obviously visible as it might seem at first glance (7). Consequently the crime is often interpreted as other different and seemingly unrelated social phenomena (3).

This is why since the beginning of the 90th to the present days the word "trafficking" has evolved from meaning only "smuggling" people - to organized exploitation (10).

When it comes to the problem of definition and description, excluding a small number of controversial cases, trafficking has been extremely hard to recognize. This is because the victims usually appear as ordinary employees interested in crossing the border, while the criminals usually pretend to be in an assisting role. However, one feature that remains clear in all forms of trafficking is taking an advantage for the purpose of exploitation of another human being. A particularly dreadful form of trafficking is smuggling women and children for forced labour, sexual exploitation or both. The Nordic Countries, including Finland, cannot stay aside in this global issue.

The Nordic countries - questions of transit and demand

Despite some reports (1), the Nordic Countries are not usually considered to be affected by trafficking of girls and women. Or not at least as much as other developed countries of Western Europe in terms of destination. Nor are the Nordic Countries traditionally associated with the countries of supply either. Yet there is one important aspect that is frequently overlooked - Finland and Sweden are often mentioned as transit countries for trafficked victims who either come from Russia (Finland shares the longest border with Russia of all the EU countries), the Baltic States, or other countries in the Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, the factor that is often ignored when discussing trafficking of girls and women through the Nordic Countries is the demand side. There is very little attention from the researchers and NGO activists into the issues of demand and what role does Finland and Sweden play in that regard. Traditionally the focus has been on where the victims come from and what is their destination, but it is not sufficiently known what the demand pattern of the Nordic Countries is. In spite of this, one way the Nordic countries can assist in fighting the crime of trafficking is to share experience. After all, they have more advanced legislation in terms of sexual trade and stronger tradition of gender equality, including its importance in all aspects of society.

Even though human trafficking has been a longstanding and widespread crime (5), it is only recently that the attention has been paid to the different aspects of this global problem, and most importantly, to its prevention (6). According to the Finnish Penal Code, for example, "any use or taking advantage of the dependent position or insecurity of another person is considered to be an abuse". Gender, in this regard, falls into the category of an existing power structure in the society, which renders the position of women in a traditional patriarchal society, as dependent, vulnerable or disadvantaged and limits the choices for them. It easily leads to a discrimination that is condoned by the norms of society a woman lives in. This is the most favorable condition for trafficking and traffickers.

Moreover, sexual abuse is particularly highlighted in the definition of human trafficking (2) and it is difficult to ignore the gender component of it. As gender has been traditionally the most common ground for discrimination and existence of unequal opportunities, in traditional patriarchal societies, men are considered to be biologically superior to women, and this has given them an unfair advantage in almost all aspects of social life. As a result this has led to a situation where women find themselves more and more disadvantaged (4, 5).

Human trafficking and gender: "push" and "pull" factors

The "push" factors leading to human trafficking are the conditions, such as poverty or lack of safety, that make women and girls leave their country of origin in search for a better place. In addition, the prevailing gender inequality means that the burden of poverty and the consequences of violence affect women disproportionately, thus creating the "feminization of poverty"(4).

Part of the problem relates to the underlying gender stereotypes that fuel the assumption in most societies that men are more powerful and active, likely to demand their interests and rebel against disadvantages, while women are more obedient, passive and left with the subordinate roles (4). These assumptions and their consequences, such as the established norms and institutions, are largely socially constructed. Among the other push factors, the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity makes it easier to target particular groups in the source country of trafficking. Due to inequality and social disadvantage, it seems traffickers prefer certain ethnic groups over others (5). Girls and women are also targeted precisely for the reason that they are known for their obedience and thought less likely to rebel against the forced labor conditions (8). The diminished possibilities of women also serve criminal networks specifically targeting girls and women looking for better marital life abroad. According to some estimates (3), most of the "brides by email" services are run by criminal networks with the purpose of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Conversely, the factors contributing for human trafficking which emerge at the country of destination are usually called the "pull" factors. Along with the development of global industry, the demand for low-wage jobs has been increasing. In this regard, women and girls are also in demand, for the reason that they are considered to be more compliant and detail oriented, and less likely to rebel against the forced labor (8). Another gender component which is especially highlighted in the "pull" factors is the normative assumption in most societies that girls and women are better suited for the household economy (5). For this reason it is not worth investing in their higher education, and this again contributes to the demand for low-wage household jobs.

When it comes to the facilitating factors that make trafficking happen, or make it easier to smuggle, buy and sell human beings - these are the more structural ones. For instance, a stricter immigration policy that favors highly skilled workers over the low-skilled employees eventually creates a demand in the country of destination for the low-paid jobs (10). Because it is easier to acquire a visa for an educated and more privileged immigrant, it makes it difficult for a low-skilled worker to enter the country, and this is where traffickers fill the demand.

The problem is worsened by the fact that the victims of trafficking are often looked at as perpetrators of immigration laws (11) and as independent responsible subjects. This in a way adds to the victimization of trafficked people. On the other hand, the sad fact remains that those who once were trafficked become involved in more trafficking: often the only way to escape from the horrible situation of sexual slavery for women and girls is to move from the status of victim to perpetrator (5).

Top-down approach to tackle trafficking

Most of the efforts addressing the problem of trafficking focus on finding, investigating, prosecuting and limiting the operations of criminals through establishing better border-control procedures. This approach works well in the areas of frequent cross-border transit. Traditionally it has been the main tool to track the majority of trafficked victims, and represents the alleged top-down approach. The efforts implemented by both, governments and civil society, are usually concentrated on two consequences of trafficking: treating it as a crime with subsequent rehabilitation of victims, and prosecuting those who cross the line.

However, one positive development to help solve this global problem is to concentrate on prevention of trafficking, as well as to engage the civil society and NGO sector to collaborate on the underlying causes that make trafficking happen. So far, most efforts have been concentrated to tackle the supply of trafficking, somehow leaving the demand issue in shadow. What gender aspect can really do is to realize the importance of the demand problem.

Thus, as the NGOs' work in preventing trafficking is concerned, there are two cornerstones. First, the efforts of the youth and educational organizations to empower young people, particularly teenage girls, are a necessary prerequisite to the trafficking prevention. Second, the awareness-raising and information campaigns about the demand issue are equally significant. In terms of gender-related crimes, such as trafficking for sexual exploitation, it is increasingly important for the civil sector to draw attention to the particular underlying cause: why does the society tolerate demand and purchase of sexual services?

The preventive work is very important, inasmuch as it concentrates on removing the underlying causes of trafficking. More specifically, the better underlying causes are identified and concentrated upon, the smaller is the risk of people falling into the trap of trafficking (6).

Role of the civil society and NGO sector in preventing trafficking

The Finnish Government has recognized the role of the non-governmental sector in addressing the problem of trafficking. The Action Plan to Combat Trafficking underlines the necessity of "preventing trafficking as effectively as possible". The measures proposed in the Action Plan aim at contributing to the prevention of trafficking in human beings by tackling its root causes, by reducing the vulnerability of potential victims, by increasing control by authorities, and by drawing attention to the responsibility of users (e.g. employers).

Other important preventive measures consist of awareness-raising and research on the underlying causes of trafficking:
* Suppressing trafficking in human beings through the dissemination of information and awareness-raising, including the provision of public information and introduction of various targeted measures.
* Financing will be provided for research on trafficking in human beings and reports will be produced on the basis of such research in all relevant sectors of administration.
* The integration of different aspects of trafficking in human beings in relevant research projects or programmes will be proposed (6).

However, one effort that could potentially prevent most underlying causes of trafficking in this aspect is concentrating on questioning and challenging gender stereotypes that fuel inequality and discrimination (12). The work with young people can prove to be very efficient in preventing gender stereotypes and minimizing an emergence of potential demand and supply causes of trafficking. Within the framework of empowerment and open discussion of gender, young people are asked to discuss norms and stereotypes about sex and gender, as well as to problematize modern gender power-order and some of its consequences, such as sexism and homophobia. This method of conducting girls' and boys' discussion groups is directed at developing and strengthening their self-esteem, communicative skills and ability to make independent judgments and better decisions. In addition, the method also urges young people to practice their social competence in conflict resolution techniques.

As a result, with this approach, the NGOs' work can help to reduce the risk for girls to become victims of sexism, disadvantage and as a consequence, of trafficking. On the other hand, it can help boys to reflect upon social roles installed in the normative society in order to liberate them and teach to make more informed choices. The girls' and boys' group method has been common in the Nordic countries to work with youth issues. However, if introduced to the countries generally known as the origin of trafficked victims, this method can also play a positive role in preventing the crime on the spot. The Project "Challenging Gender Roles for Prevention of Trafficking", lead by the Peace Institute in cooperation with Resource Center for Women "Marta" in Riga, Latvia, is one of such initiatives that prioritize preventive work and the gender aspect of trafficking prevention by working with groups of young people (12).

For further information, see:

1. "U.S. report on human trafficking shows Finland in a poor light", Helsingin Sanomat
2. The Finnish Penal Code: chapter 25, section 3, subsection 1, 1998
3. Liz Kelly, "You can find anything you want: A critical reflection on research on Trafficking in Persons within and Into Europe" /Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, University of North London, UK, 2006
4. Amanda Hart, "Power, Gender and Human Trafficking", 2004
5. Jean D'Cunha: "Trafficking in persons: a gender and rights perspective", 2005
6. National plan of Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, adopted by the Finnish Government in 2005
7. Guri Tyldum "Coping with Biases in Trafficking Data", 2007
8. Masud Ali "Assessment of the demand-supply interface of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation ", 2007
9. Amy Farell/Jack McDevitt "Enhancing the Collection and Standardization of Human Trafficking Data: Examples for Data Collection Efforts in the United States", 2002
10. "Data and research on Human Trafficking", IOM report, 2005
11. The Finnish National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human beings, "Report 2010, Trafficking in human beings, phenomena related to it, and implementation of the rights of human trafficking victims in Finland"
12. http://www.peace.ax/en/challenginggenderroles