Human Trafficking, Gender, and Agency

IWMPost Article

Human trafficking is always the result of crisis but this does not render the trafficked completely without agency or totally disempowered.

The word trafficking is one of the most tantalizing ones of our times. And, among the different forms of trafficking, nothing conjures up images of horror more than human trafficking. Human trafficking is defined in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, or 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.

The 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Person of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed that female victims continue to be the primary targets of traffickers. Of those known to be trafficked in 2018,  half were women and 19 percent were girls, while 20 percent were men and 15 percent boys. Apart from showing the gendered nature of the problem, this shows why efforts to define human trafficking have become so loaded with the politics of disempowerment and emasculation. Human trafficking therefore is currently termed by some sources in the Global North as modern-day slavery. This notion has been popularized by the likes of the American social scientist Kevin Bales. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, an agency of the U.S. Department of State, is one of the chief advocates of this terminology. Such a narrative became increasingly attractive to international audiences, particularly in the Global North.

International bodies such as International Labor Organization have reported that the Asia Pacific region has the highest number of people in forced labor at 15.1 million. This is one of the reasons why the notion that women in South and Southeast Asia are trafficked to become modern-day slaves has become increasingly popular. Considering the widespread poverty in these two regions, women are seen as prime targets of exploitation. But such a narrative completely denies any agency to all women there who have been trafficked or have tried to continue to not merely survive but live their lives.

In contrast to trafficking, smuggling became understood as an agentive concept. Even though smuggling was considered a crime as it led to the commodification of humans just as in trafficking, it is seen as different. While trafficking is considered a completely exploitative process, smuggling is not since people approaching smugglers are considered as having more agency and so smugglers are seen as service providers. Human smuggling involves the transportation, often with fraudulent documents, of individuals who seek to gain illegal entry into a foreign land. Therefore the onus is less on the smuggler and more on the smuggled. Also, while trafficking may or may not be a cross-border enterprise, smuggling is always one. Although there are several overlaps between smuggling and trafficking, the notion of power and empowerment in them is different.

None of the above is to argue that trafficking is not a debilitating phenomenon, especially for those who are trafficked. And there is no denying the fact that most women and men who are trafficked come from vulnerable sections of society. Also, often women submit to the ignominy of being trafficked because of penury. But to think that these women are completely without agency shows a lack of understanding of the situation. For trafficking and smuggling alike, the underlying principle is that of transaction.

Let us take the case of Piya, a girl of 18 who had been living in a women’s hostel in South Bengal. Her mother is a sex worker in one of the red-light districts of Kolkata and lives in northern suburban part of the city. Piya had never lived with her mother until the last phase of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown forced her to leave the hostel. During the festival of Durga Puja, she wanted to buy new clothes and her mother sent her to Kolkata with her baboo (a male client who pays maintenance and lives with the sex worker). In Kolkata, the baboo repeatedly raped her and then tried to sell her, but the police rescued her. Now Piya lives in a government facility for rescued victims of trafficking. She has no idea where she will go when she cannot stay there any longer, but she knows she will not go back to her mother or to any known address. If need be, she will consent to being trafficked.

Another case is that of Namiya, who lives in the plantation area of Alipurduar in North Bengal. Her mother is preparing to send her away for work even though she is aged 17. Namiya is ready to leave her native place. When asked if she is aware of the risks, she replies leaving is better than dying of hunger. She is also excited that she will have her own money, which she has never had before.

In January 2022, it was reported that state police officers had held a meeting with the garden workers in the tea garden areas of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts to reduce trafficking of minor girls and boys. The workers are helpless and practically living without food. In this situation they send their children away to work as cheap labour. The latter are not unaware of the risks but they want to brave them for a better life.

Trafficking is always a result of crisis but it does not always render those trafficked completely without agency or totally disempowered; for example, in the case of adult women as opposed to that of children. The dominant narrative about these women, however, constructs them as completely disempowered. The correctives suggested to this misunderstanding are also not useful. For example, it has been suggested that, because they were placed in brothels as a result of being trafficked, they should get out when able. People fail to realize that the time of getting out never comes. Even if they manage to get out, their economic and social situation forces them to go back.  Out of the brothels they might be a rag picker or a medical waste collector, so it is no wonder that they prefer to remain in them and agree to be sex workers. There they have a community and people to stand behind them; after all, sex workers do not die of hunger and their choosing life over death cannot be an incorrect choice.

Understanding the nature of trafficking requires more nuanced thinking that challenges the idea that reduces women to slaves when they are trafficked but not when they are smuggled. Debilitating circumstances cannot reduce a person, male or female, to slavery. Defining women who are trafficked as modern-day slaves contributes to their voicelessness. Would it be the same if those trafficked were perceived as overwhelmingly men? Our understanding of agency is gendered. It needs to be reconfigured so that women are viewed as not mere victims but as persons making a choice, albeit a hard one, that can make the difference between life and death for them. What is more agentive than the effort to live? If such agency seems to make us uncomfortable, then we need to create a new terminology instead of relegating women to being slaves.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Human Trafficking, FAQs, (accessed on August 10, 2023).

UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.20.IV.3) p.9.

Kevin Bales, “Modern Stavery: A Beginners Guide,” (London, One World Publication, revised edition 2011).

International Labor Organization, Forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, (accessed on October 25, 2023).

Sangbida Lahiri’s interview with Piya (name changed), October 13, 2022, South Bengal.


Author’s interview with Namiya, March 3, 2023, North Bengal. 

“Human Trafficking at Tea Garden,” (accessed on November 2, 2023).

Paula Banerjee is director of the Centre on Gender and Forced Displacement, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, and member of the Calcutta Research Group. She was a visiting fellow at the IWM in 2018.