National survey in Brazil shows this crime is a reality, recruitment occurs through social media and networks of trust, and media cultures contribute to strengthening gender stereotypes

96% of people interviewed in an unprecedented national survey believe that women are being trafficked in Brazil, and 82% estimate that it takes place in their own town. These results dismiss the prevailing belief that human trafficking is an urban legend or a fictional subject from a famous Brazilian soap opera. Another significant result is the fact that 16% of people interviewed claim to know women who are victims of trafficking, and the same percentage applies to recruitment via social networks. This is important information for feminists working with technology and for digital media activists, so they can further expand the struggle for gender equality; they can extend into social networks that are the site for the formation of political subjects and push the debate on transforming citizenship in the public arena.

Do you know someone who has been victim of trafficking in women via social networks?

Sim = Yes

Não = No

(grey color = total; green color = men; purple color = women)

The result corroborates the data presented by the NGO Safernet Brazil, that the recruitment of victims via social networks for sexual purposes is 95%. This NGO receives anonymous reports of crimes and violations against the human rights on the internet, and they provide effective and transparent procedures for dealing with complaints. The use of internet for criminal purposes especially human trafficking allows recruiters to reach the victims which they would never have access to in the streets. According to Safernet, “middle-class girls too are enticed into prostitution with the prospect of expensive products and money that they would hardly have access to if doing formal employment or relying on parental allowance. Teens also receive marriage proposal or offers to work in international cruises with high salaries”.

Recruiting takes place on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In the United States, most underage prostitutes are recruited by pimps on the Craiglist ad site.

A study from Scelles Foundation, a French Institute which fights against sexual exploitation, show that the internet has become a common means of child enticement. The report entitled Prostitution in the heart of organized crime published in 2012, examines the phenomenon in 24 countries, including France, Brazil, United States, India, China and Mexico. The calculation is that 42 million people are prostituted worldwide, of which 90% are exploited by pimps. Latin America has 10% of trafficking in persons for sexual activities – nearly half of the victims are children and youth under 18 years. The pimps’ networks recruits people on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In the United States, most underage prostitutes are recruited by pimps on the Craiglist ad site. “The pimps make a false job offer as dummy and use their current ‘victims’ to recruit other young people. The striking element in Europe is the multiplication of prostitutes coming from different countries, usually controlled by gangs spread throughout the continent.” The study also points out that the trafficking of Brazilian women in Europe was increasing. The victims come from poor northern communities, such as the states of Amazonas, Pará, Roraima and Amapá. The study also states that major sporting and international events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games contribute to exacerbate the phenomenon.

The victims come from poor northern communities, such as the states of Amazonas, Pará, Roraima and Amapá, and the demand is high especially during major sporting and international events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Other findings

Among other key findings in the national survey carried out in 2016 by Brazilian Peace Women Association are:

68% believe that children and women are the main victims of human trafficking; that the lack of job opportunities, sex tourism and domestic violence are factors that contribute to trafficking in women; 43% estimate that trafficking in women is done with the consent of the victims; 99% believe that the crime should be reported; 54% know Hotline 180 is a channel for complaining and obtaining information, indicating that trafficking in women is perceived as a form of violence against women; there is lack of information on the subject and the prioritization of the criminal aspect of media coverage ends up generating confusion among the public, mixing, for example, voluntary prostitution with sexual exploitation.

This is a national public opinion survey by sampling, coordinated by Vera Vieira and Clara Charf, from Peace Women Association (Associação Mulheres pela Paz) and implemented by Datafolha Research Institute. The qualitative phase was conducted with the experts on the subject, working in government organizations, NGOs and universities from different regions, through telephone interviews or via skype lasting about 90 minutes, with the objective of deepening the knowledge of the subject and for purpose of determining questions for the quantitative assessment that was conducted with 1,585 people in eight capitals in Brazil: Florianópolis / SC (South region); Belo Horizonte / MG, Rio de Janeiro / RJ and São Paulo / SP (Southeast); Goiânia / GO (Midwest); Natal / RN and Fortaleza / CE (Northeast); and Belém / PA (North region).

The research is part of a project coordinated by Associação Mulheres pela Paz (Brazilian Peace Women Association), supported by Special Secretariat of Policies for Women, from Ministry of Justice, through a Parliamentary Amendment by Luiza Erundina de Sousa, Federal Deputy for the State of São Paulo. The project is also supported by the Ford Foundation and PWAG (Switzerland). In previous years this association has carried out, throughout Brazil, seminars and workshops on the subject, and has a national partnership with Rede Mulher de Educação (Women’s Network of Education), União de Mulheres de São Paulo (Women’s Union of São Paulo), Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra (Geledés Black Women’s Institute)and Elas por Elas Vozes e Ações das Mulheres (Vital Voices Network).

The issue of human trafficking began to gain national and international visibility in the human rights agenda in the late 1990s, most markedly in the early 21st century, with the encouragement of prevention, repression and accountability actions contained in the Palermo Convention of the United Nations and on its additional protocols. These documents were designed to complement the United Nations Convention against the Transnational Organized Crime, since human trafficking came to be regarded as a modern form of slavery. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human trafficking is characterized by the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or reception of persons, by means of the threat, by use of force or other forms of coercion, by abduction, by fraud, by deception, by the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or by giving or receiving payments or benefits to get permission for one person to have control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Its definition is in the Protocol on Prevention, Suppression and Punishment of human Trafficking, Especially of Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, also known as the Palermo Convention.

Modern slavery

With the recasting of capitalist practices, humanity is confronted with what can be called human deterritorialization. The Third Revolution occurred with the development of new information and communication technologies, causing another boost to the markets in the production and finance area. It accentuates the subordination of poor countries, and in the current epoch this subordination is to a remote ‘master’ – it is without human contact and operates with the push of a button (online). It also ignores the social consequences, jeopardizes national sovereignty and increases the number of people completely excluded from the system that do not even have the ‘right’ to be exploited by the capital system i.e. they are nobodies within the capitalist system.

These global shifts are reflecting directly in the increase of the human flow, in national and in transnational terms, that are in search of their dreams for better life conditions. This accentuation of the globalization process that is occurring in the last decades, which began before the arrival of the new millennium is full of uncertainties. According to Eric Hobsbawm (Age of Extremes, 1995, p.541), “briefly, the century ended in a global disorder, with its nature not clear, and without an obvious mechanism to end the disorder or keep it under control. The reason for this impotence was not only in the hugeness and complexity of the global crisis, but also in the apparent failure of all the old and new programs made to monitor and improve the problems of the human race.”

Hobsbawm: The reason for this impotence was not only in the hugeness and complexity of the global crisis, but also in the apparent failure of all the old and new programs made to monitor and improve the problems of the human race.

Facing this seemingly irreversible scenario, the UN actions early in the 21st century, on the one hand, reflect efforts to avoid globalizing disintegration and simultaneously encouraging the search for the global citizenship. There is a clear obstacle to any advances on prevention, responsibility and assistance to the victims of human trafficking due to the linkage of immigration criminalization laws with the formulation of mega concepts related to human trafficking. Among the key concepts that need to be subject of discourse and deconstruction, we can mention the notion of exploitation, sex tourism and prostitution, and to progress in this debate in dealing with the problem, this must include the participation of various actors. This helps us to anchor production and dissemination of knowledge around human trafficking, that connects it to organized crime and migration. Recognizing that many victims are displaced or have migrated, actually leads to further criminalization, rather than any recognition of their human rights. (Piscitelli, 2013).

Among the purposes of human trafficking are commercial sexual exploitation, labor analogous to slavery and the sale of organs. New modalities were identified with ENAFRON Research- Diagnosis on Human Trafficking in the Border Regions, held by Ministry of Justice in 2013. The 11 Brazilian borders revealed that exploitation includes also mendicancy (begging) and domestic servitude of children and adolescents – including “adopted” girls , young boys trafficked for exploitation in football (soccer) clubs, many of whom were sexually abused.

Women as sexual commodities

Women are among the main victims of human trafficking (83%), according to a study made by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2013. In 92% of the cases, the recruitment is for sexual exploitation purposes. Human trafficking is considered the third most profitable form of crime in the world, losing only to drugs and weapon trafficking – and according to global statistics, more than 2 million people are victims of human trafficking each year. According to Ildo Rosa, Chief of the Federal Police, “Brazil is considered the birthplace of women trafficking, due to the large number of neighboring countries, as well as serving as the basis of Latin America to ‘export’ to Europe and North America”. This statement was provided on April 11th, 2013, in Florianópolis / SC, during the workshop held by the Brazilian Peace Women Association. Most victims are young (between 18 and 29 years), poor and with low education. There is also trafficking of children (mostly girls), homosexuals and young transvestites.

The sex trade or other forms of adult sex work does not always imply trafficking, there can be prostitution in which there is no third party taking advantage of the activity. But exploitation in prostitution occurs when someone takes advantage of the sex activity of another person.

As well highlighted by the Women’s Secretariat of the Presidency, in the text Women Trafficking – National coping Policy in 2011, this is a crime wherein the “ ultimate consequence is male domination versus female submission. What happens is the objectification of the female body, the symbolic figure of women that are treated and traded as object, with the purpose of making profit, disregarding completely the respect for their dignity as human beings with rights. This contributes to the reality of exploitation, and also to the socially constructed stereotypes reproduced by the media, linking the image of Brazilian women to sexuality that ends up encouraging sex tourism in Brazil and increasing the risk of human trafficking.”

What happens is the objectification of the female body, the symbolic figure of women that are treated and traded as object, with the purpose of making profit, disregarding completely the respect for their dignity as human beings with rights.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the main causes of human trafficking are: lack of job opportunities, gender discrimination; political, economic and civil unrest in conflict regions; domestic violence; undocumented migration; sex tourism; corruption of public officials and deficient laws.

A frightening statistic shows that 55% in the network of recruiters are women. To explain this number, the same document of the Women´s Policies Department emphasizes that, “in 2009, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded in its Global Report on Human Trafficking that a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, not only as victims (which we knew) but also as traffickers (first time documented here). Offenders (female) have a significant role in modern-day slavery than in many other crimes. This statement must be understood taking into account the complexity of this phenomenon. There is no denying that women play a strategic role in the recruitment for human trafficking networks, because the scheme most used in Brazil is the use of social contacts, neighborhood, friendship and kinship, which gives to offers a less risky appearance, in which women are presented as reliable sources. However, we cannot fail to point out the different positions held by the women who have been victims of trafficking networks and became recruiters.”

The Women Policies Department continues to say that the The National Research on Child, Women and Adolescents Trafficking for Commercial Sexual Exploitation (PESTRAF, 2002) seems to relativize the conclusion of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Girls who go to Holland, Germany and Italy, and are there for a long time, are forced to invite sisters to visit them, through false letters and phone calls , because they cannot tell the truth. Thus, the recruiter-victim is coerced into using their trusts ties to invite other women and may even be the only way to settle the debts with the exploiters. PESTRAF was conducted by Maria Lucia Leal and Maria de Fátima Leal from the University of Brasilia, and revealed 241 domestic and international routes of human trafficking in Brazil, and provoked the indignation of society and Brazilian authorities, forcing them to address the problem.” Further Claudia Maria de Freitas Chagas, then National Secretary of Justice in 2006, emphasizes that this work also brought down some of the myths, including common sensical ideas that commercial sexual exploitation existed only in poor regions. Of the 241 routes, there are 76 in the North, 69 in the Northeast, 35 in the Southeast, 33 in the Midwest and 28 in the South.

A disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, not only as victims (which we knew) but also as traffickers.

Among the impacts and damages suffered by women victims of human trafficking are: psychological: threat, neglect, confinement; physical: forced drug use, forced abortions, deprivation of food, sleep and freedom, STDs / HIV; legal: prostitution could be considered crime in the country of destination, being in illegal condition abroad, loss of child custody, prison, deportation; social: isolation, break with family ties, excessive shyness, distrust; economic: debts with traffickers, loss of personal and family household goods.

In 2004, the Brazilian government ratified the Palermo Convention with the UN General Department. That same year, Brazil started the development of public policies, which involved different actors in society and professional bodies connected to the topic, including virtual public consultations.

It important to emphasize the relevance of the toll free Hotline 180 (National and International), from the Women´s Policies Secretariat of the Federal Government (Presidency) , as a public policy which has contributed in providing information to victims of human trafficking and violence, and also to receive complaints. It has been one of the most important starting points for the rout of women trafficking gangs. The service works every day for 24 hours, including Sundays and holidays and can be triggered from anywhere in Brazil and over 16 countries (Argentina, Belgium, Spain, USA – San Francisco -, France, French Guiana, Holland, England , Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Paraguay, Portugal, Switzerland, Uruguay and Venezuela).

Brazil doesn’t have adequate legislation to confront this reality. The Bill 7310/14, authored by Senator Lidice da Mata, still to be made law, seeks to conform to terms in the Palermo Convention. Human trafficking will be characterized as a crime against the dignity of the person, and not only as crimes against sexual dignity (Brazilian Criminal Code).

Certainly the unprecedented national survey has led to a more nuanced understanding of human trafficking, gender, women as victims and recruiters, social media and networks of trust that are exploited, but also the survey has accentuated the need for further studies and for support for public policies of prevention, enforcement, accountability and assistance to survivors and existing victims. It will also contribute to the realization of a dynamic construction or deconstruction of key concepts related to human trafficking. In addition, there should be an increase in the sensitivity of public opinion, media, public managers and leaders of social movements on the severity of conditions faced by women caught in the nexus of trafficking and inequalities and injustice faced because of class, race, age, sexual orientation / gender identity.


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