Female Perpetrators of Human Trafficking:
Overlooked in the United Nations’ Anti-Trafficking Framework
by Marianelli V. Agbulos
Sponsored by Dr. Meghana Nayak
Peace and Justice Studies
“Lily was a victim of trafficking. After she escaped from her abusers, she was assisted in
returning to her place of origin. Soon after she returned, Lily’s abusers located her and
threatened her and her baby; Lily was presented with the option of returning with her
trafficker or recruiting others to replace her. In desperate fear for the safety of herself and
her baby, Lily recruited her twin sister and best friend.”
Human trafficking is a social issue that is typically constructed as a female-victim/male-
perpetrator dyad. The United Nations has a plethora of information on female victims and male
perpetrators of human trafficking, while female perpetrators are rarely mentioned in official UN
publications. Male perpetrators are the norm in society, while “female pimps” are
unacknowledged and continue to perpetuate the cycle of human trafficking and its accompanying
“Perpetrator” in this paper is used as synonymous with pimp, trafficker, and other names
given to perpetrators of human trafficking that apply to either women or men. Focus on male
perpetrators of human trafficking in news stories and scholarly research does not convey an
accurate view of the problem since “[s]ome 30 percent of convicted traffickers worldwide
between 2010 and 2012 were women, whereas the average female conviction rate for other
crimes is usually in the range of 10-15 percent.”
The fact that women make up a significant
portion of convicted traffickers compared to their involvement in other crimes calls for attention.
Profiling The Traffickers, p.5. Research rept. no. UN.GIFT B.P.: 016. N.p.: 2008. Print.
UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 p.28 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.14.V.10).
While the United Nations provides statistics on female perpetrators of human trafficking,
it has published little comprehensive research examining their motives, activities, and behavior.
This is most likely because United Nations policies, similar to those of the United States’ anti-
trafficking policies on which they are based, take a gendered perspective on victims of human
trafficking. Those victims are mainly portrayed as female, with emphasis on those victims’
The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the sparse literature on female perpetrators of
human trafficking rather than on females as victims; to analyze and critique the United Nations’
inadequate approach to human trafficking, which is abolitionist
and focuses on perpetrators and
maintaining law and order; and to argue that the United Nations needs to adopt a gender-
inclusive framework to counter human trafficking.
Facets of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is an umbrella term encompassing several types of trafficking that
happen at the national and international levels: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and organ
trafficking. The Palermo Protocol, also known as the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish
Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, defines human trafficking 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.
Abolitionists want to eradicate prostitution, which they do not view as a form of labor.
Human trafficking is not the same as smuggling. These terms are sometimes used
interchangeably with one another because some people who are smuggled are at risk for being
trafficked. The difference between human trafficking and smuggling is the former involves the
use of force, while the latter does not.
Smuggling and human trafficking are connected to issues of migration (the movement of
people across borders), which creates a supply and demand model between countries. The
demand component of human trafficking involves pimps, sex tourism operators (of strip clubs
and brothels), laws and policies that tolerate sex tourism, the state, and the culture and media that
Women are willing to risk looking for work in other countries because their unequal
rights and inadequate access to labor in their own country present them with limited options for
earning money. Research suggests that some female perpetrators started out as victims who were
smuggled or trafficked across state borders (Profiling the Traffickers).
Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work
It is crucial to know when prostitution becomes human trafficking because the two are
connected in a way that allows their lines to easily blur—especially since prostitution and human
trafficking affect marginalized populations and because the act of selling sex is a readily
available source of income. Female perpetrators of prostitution are not always perpetrators of
human trafficking, in the same way that “not all victims of trafficking are prostitutes, nor are all
prostitutes victims of trafficking”.
Hughes, Donna M. (2008) "Combating Sex Trafficking: A Perpetrator-Focused Approach," University of St.
Thomas Law Journal: Vol.6: Iss. 1, Article 5.
Kempadoo, Kamala, ed. Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered. 2nd ed. Boulder: Paradigm
Publishers, 2012. Print.
The United Nations does not provide a definition of prostitution because it grants power
to the states to make their own laws and policies on prostitution and issues connected to human
trafficking; the United Nations merely seeks to provide guidance.
This allows various
definitions of the word, which cause it to be conflated with human trafficking and sex work. That
said, the United Nations does use the terms “forced” or “involuntary” in relation to prostitution
in order to emphasize the aspect of consent in prostitution. (Not using the words “forced” or
“involuntary” would suggest that prostitution is sex work and is thus voluntary labor.) Age also
differentiates prostitution from sex work and human trafficking: children are considered to be
victims of trafficking, and their cases are accordingly treated as a serious crime
Drawing upon the framework outlined by the United Nations, a prostitute can be
understood as a person who has prior knowledge that he or she will have sex with another person
and that he or she will be paid for it. By contrast, human trafficking involves the movement of
people across borders who are forced into sex work or involuntary labor after being tricked into
thinking they will get a regular job. In some situations, people are aware they will be working in
the sex industry, but they have no idea that they will be moved between countries and states.
Prostitution becomes human trafficking when victims are kidnapped, forced, or moved against
their will in order to be sold or made to perform sexual acts without consent when they are
moved across state or country borders.
There are two approaches to analyzing prostitution and human trafficking: the abolitionist
view and the sex workers’ rights view. Proponents of these two approaches differ in the way they
look at how women make choices. Carisa Showden has developed three models of prostitution:
Working Group on Trafficking in Persons, Analysis of key concepts of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol
(Vienna: United Nations, 2010), available from
sex as violence, sex as radicalism, and sex as work. Showden’s “sex as violence framework”
relates to abolitionist feminism in which prostitution is viewed as patriarchal violence and cannot
be considered labor because “it does not contribute to any social need” (Showden 138, 140). This
abolitionist view of prostitution does not distinguish between “forced” and “free choice”
The abolitionist perspective, which is based in traditional Christian morality, informs
both the United States’ anti-trafficking policies and the United Nations’ anti-trafficking
framework. Abolitionists do not view sex work as a form of legitimate labor. Thus they disregard
sex workers as female perpetrators who have made the choice to engage in human trafficking,
viewing them instead as hapless individuals who have been forced into their position by their
socioeconomic circumstances. From this perspective, no woman can consent to prostitution of
her own free will because women are classified as “bought objects” once they engage in
prostitution. Thus a woman who participates in prostitution is viewed as a victim who needs help
to escape from enslavement.
By contrast, sex workers’ rights groups view “prostitution” as legitimate labor that
highlights a woman’s self-determination and autonomy.
Showden’s “Sex as radicalism” and
“sex as work” are the two relevant models of prostitution here. What defines the difference
between sex viewed as “radicalism” and sex viewed as “work” is privilege. Sex radicals are a
privileged set of sex workers who have the choice of entering and leaving sex work whenever
they desire (Showden 141). Sex radicals view sex as an act of liberation from normative
femininity. Under the “sex as work” model, sex work is seen as a legitimate form of “service
labor” that women choose in order to survive and earn a profit (Showden 147). Thus sex worker
Outshoorn, J. (2005). The political debates on prostitution and the trafficking of women, social politics:
International studies in gender. State and Society, 12 (1), 141-155.
activists advocate for a labor framework of sex work that calls for safe working conditions like
those of any other form of labor. Additionally, sex radicals argue that sex workers have the right
to migrate for their work whenever and wherever they choose. This sex workers’ perspective
puts women in control of their circumstances and acknowledges their independence and their
ability to make their own decisions.
It is important to acknowledge the disagreement over the issue of choice when discussing
human trafficking, prostitution, and sex work. The abolitionist makes no distinction between a
sex worker and an innocent trafficking victim, thus denying sex work the status of labor. Failure
to recognize that some women engage in sex work voluntarily allows abolitionists to disregard
the need to assist sex workers by informing them of their rights or by providing them with
resources to care for themselves.
Female Perpetrators of Human Trafficking
Perpetrators of human trafficking are often perceived to be male because the gendered
construction of human trafficking presents men as the ones who always inflict violence, while
females are automatically assumed to be passive victims. As a result, society and the media
typically present males as perpetrators. I define perpetrators as men and women who manage and
control the distribution and selling of women (as well as men) to interested parties who make up
the demand component of human trafficking. Female perpetrators consist of pimps, madams,
managers, recruiters, and handlers. These were most likely former prostitutes and/or victims of
human trafficking who were promoted to managerial roles alongside their male pimps and who
Profiling The Traffickers, p.5. Research rept. no. UN.GIFT B.P.: 016. N.p.: n.p., 2008. Print.
Depending on the country in which they operate, female perpetrators have different
names that are gendered labels reflecting a “nurturing mother narrative” that projects concern for
the victims. For example, in Nepal, female traffickers are called “didi” or “phupudidi,” which
both translate to “paternal aunt,” and “sathi,” which means “best friend” (Simkhada 241). Since a
woman’s socially constructed role presents her as a primary caregiver, nurturer, and peacemaker,
these labels given to perpetrators emphasize their femininity in order to earn the trust of the
victims. (The labels can even be seen as suggesting a relationship mirroring that of a mother and
child.) Female traffickers are reported to have told the girls they recruit that “‘it was better
working for them as opposed to male pimps because they would not get beat up’” (Jones 163).
Encouraging victims to regard their female perpetrators as mother figures, ironically, fulfills the
expectation of women as “caretakers.”
Is being a female perpetrator an act of agency or victimization?
Female perpetrators are caught in a never-ending cycle of victimization and victimizing.
Most of them have little or no education, which limits their employment options. They also know
that their involvement in sex work, whether it began voluntarily or involuntarily, has made them
tainted outcasts who cannot return to the community from which they came (Profiling The
Traffickers). (Ironically, being part of this group of perpetrators may give them the only sense of
community now available to them.) And while it may seem heartless for someone who was a
victim-turned-perpetrator to put another woman through the same experience, financial security,
plus the accompanying feeling of empowerment, keep female perpetrators in their role: wealth
and economic benefits outweigh traditional social values and traditional religious morals in
which sex is valued as an act of procreation alone. To maintain her position, the female
perpetrator must meet her recruitment quota, which means she must continue the cycle of
Because female perpetrators are in a leadership position, they can assert more power and
control within the boundaries of their duties. They can provide their female victims with a job
and take care of their personal needs, which builds trust and loyalty between them—and
obscures the fact that they are also inflicting and continuing the cycle of violence (Molland 243).
Showing the victim that she is cared for makes it difficult for her to speak out against the female
perpetrator. Moreover, the female perpetrator embodies a model of success for victims to
emulate. Thus victims recruit their friends and/or family members in order to themselves gain the
material status they desire and to reward the female perpetrator for the help she has given. (This
personal connection in the recruitment process explains why most victims report knowing a pimp
The United Nations and Female Perpetrators
The current United Nations framework takes a victim-centered approach that is mirrored
in the United States’ trafficking policies: the Trafficking of Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and
the Trafficking of Victims Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). The TVPA was established in 2000
as a foundation for United States anti-trafficking legislation that developed a policy framework
focused on the “3Ps”: prevention, protection, and prosecution of human trafficking. In addition,
this victim-centered approach focuses on prosecuting traffickers and protecting victims by
issuing the T visa,
which allows eligible victims and their families to temporarily remain and
UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.14.V.10).
"Current Federal Laws." Polaris Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2015.
work in the United States (US Homeland Security). Specifically, the TVPA strengthened the
federal government’s ability to prosecute traffickers. It was reauthorized in 2003, 2005, 2008,
and 2013, with several amendments to its provisions.
A United Nations document that can be seen to have parallel importance to the TVPA is
the Palermo Protocol, also known as the UN Trafficking Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and
Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Also established in 2000, the
Palermo Protocol was created by UN governing bodies to centralize the criminalization process
of trafficking in women and children. It was “designed to supplement the UN Convention against
Transnational Organized Crime, and was created through the UNODOC [United Nations Office
of Drugs and Crime]” (Shoaps 932-933). In fact, it was “the first treaty to provide a broad
definition of trafficking” (Shoaps 933). The creation of the Palermo Protocol provided the
foundation for establishing global anti-trafficking standards.
The United States was influential in framing the victim-centered approach in the Palermo
Protocol by establishing women as victims and men as perpetrators, thus reinforcing gender
norms in anti-trafficking policies. This “gendered victim model” is also reflected in multiple
anti-trafficking documents in which the victim is almost always presented as a female from an
impoverished country who enters and leaves different countries (Profiling The Traffickers;
UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014). This emphasis on female victims
excludes male victims of human trafficking from those legal frameworks that supposedly
promote a human rights approach (Shoaps 940) and promotes the social construction of the
trafficker as typically male—the “bad guy” in the victim-perpetrator relationship. This creates a
"Current Federal Laws." Polaris Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2015.
gender-based model of the trafficker rather than a power-control dynamics model. It is the latter
that is present in all trafficking cases.
The victim-centered approach in the TVPA and the Palermo Protocol originated with the
Clinton administration, which established the “Three Ps” trafficking framework in response to
the Beijing Platform of Action
on combating the “forced prostitution” component of sex
trafficking (Hughes 36). The “Three Ps” framework eventually evolved into the victim-centered
approach after the end of the Clinton administration, and it became an influential component of
the strategies other countries included in their anti-trafficking policies (Hughes 36). The United
States spearheaded this law enforcement framework, which prioritizes perpetrator prosecution
over victim protection (Shoaps 949).
The victim-centered approach originally developed by the Clinton administration
continues to influence United States policy funding and definitions of prostitution and human
trafficking. The United States’ abolitionist view on prostitution does not distinguish between
“forced” and “free choice” prostitution because the United States believes that no one can
willingly choose prostitution: in their view, it victimizes women and is a continued form of
slavery. Thus, trafficking in persons is equated with prostitution, which completely eliminates
the voices of sex workers and presents them as passive victims. This becomes apparent when one
examines the definition of trafficking used in the Palermo Protocol:
“Trafficking in Persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring
or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of
abduction, or fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability
The Beijing Platform for Action is a collaborative document by several United Nations entities. It outlines goals
and suggestions for how the basic human rights of women should be implemented, with a particular focus on gender
equality and women’s empowerment under twelve topics (UN Women).
or of giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having
control over another person, for the purposes 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” (UN Protocol 2000, p. 2)
This inclusion and application of the word “forced” (bolded by author) presents a distinction
between forced prostitution and voluntary sex work. It offers a more holistic definition of human
trafficking that gives equal attention to the rights of sex workers and respects the choices women
make to earn money. The emphasis on the victims of human trafficking rather than on sex
workers implies that the former group is more worthy of help.
It is easy for the public to understand why human trafficking is bad and why the behavior
of perpetrators is unacceptable: anyone who inflicts violence on another human being is
automatically a bad person. But the public is not told how and why people become traffickers.
Where is the conversation on traffickers and their circumstances? Instead of simply labeling
trafficker as the “bad guys,” more substantial research needs to be done. Examining both male
and female perpetrators as part of the root cause of trafficking will expand our understanding of
how the gendered dynamics of human trafficking perpetuate a cycle of violence.
The United Nations preaches a human rights approach to solving world problems. But if
everyone is entitled to their human rights, what about the human rights of female perpetrators,
who are caught in a complex system of violence, migration, and/or labor that prohibits them
from living a life free from danger? How is the United Nations supposed to treat female victims
turned perpetrators if there are no policies in place to handle this type of situation? The UN must
begin sifting through the layers that contribute to the likelihood of a person being trafficked and
possibly becoming a perpetrator, regardless of gender. Only getting information from the same
source—the victims of human trafficking—has produced similar research results. If the UN
shifted some of its resources to examining the demand side of human trafficking—the
traffickers’ activities and operations—we would get a more balanced perspective on the issue.
Seeking a greater understanding of human trafficking through analysis of its supply-and-demand
component, as well as by examination of the perpetrators’ criminal activity, can be highly
beneficial. The UN needs to gather crucial information from the perpetrators in order to learn
more about their behavior and lives. Doing so could help to get at the root cause of human
trafficking, and thus help to solve the problem.
Bringing female perpetrators into anti-trafficking research is not meant to exclude male
perpetrators from that research or to demonize women; it is meant to complement existing
research. Little attention has been given to the female victims of human trafficking who then
become perpetrators. Discussing female violence against other females can be uncomfortable
since there is already gendered shame in being a victim of violence; and then there is the added
layer of becoming a perpetrator. This paper confronts the United Nations’ silence on female
perpetrators and argues that the organization will not be able to effectively counter human
trafficking if it continues to ignore the women who perpetuate violence against other women.
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