Robin Heller, President of The Athena Advisors, is a member of the advisory board for The Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C. This organization does vital work in providing legal support for those involved in terrifying situations, with little recourse for hope. The legal powerhouses of the Center restore the freedom and dignity of those trapped in trafficking. This year, The Athena Advisors is a sponsor of the HTLC’s event, On My Side Awards 2021. Lucy Hart, Coordinator of Research and Capacity-Building at The Athena Advisors, shares her perspective on why this issue is so central to a just world.

Human Trafficking is a gendered issue.

An estimated 71% of trafficked persons are women and girls.
Human trafficking is a gendered issue.

But gender analyses of human trafficking often tread old ground. Women are understood to be, have been and become, ever vulnerable as women and girls. They, say normative and patriarchal narratives, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are women. And yet, female survivors of human trafficking can be victims of sex trafficking, labor trafficking, domestic servitude[1]. According to Anti-Slavery International, ‘modern slavery is the severe exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain. Victims are deceived or coerced into a situation which they cannot leave[2] . Poverty, access to work, social marginalization, discrimination, the lack of universal quality education, the prevalence of the informal economy and weak social dialogue intersect to increase a woman’s vulnerability to trafficking[3].

Human trafficking denotes more than sexual exploitation, and yet a study by the European Commission in 2016 on the gender dimension of human trafficking focused almost wholly on trafficking for sexual exploitation, disregarding the multifarious forms of exploitation experienced by trafficking victims[4]. The fetishization of sexual exploitation overemphasises its prevalence, overlooking those forced into coercive domestic, construction or agricultural work. According to the International Labour Organisation, in 2017 forced sexual exploitation accounted for 19% of forced labour, while 16 million (64%) forced labour victims worked in domestic work, construction or agriculture and 4 million (16%) persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities[5].

The Human Trafficking Legal Center does things differently: HTLC works with survivor consultants to best support the inevitable: future victims of trafficking. HTLC transcends traditional gender discourse and repudiates the view of women as intrinsically vulnerable. Instead, HTLC amplifies the voices of survivors themselves.

According to 2018 research by The Human Trafficking Legal Center, only 27% of U.S. courts order restitution for trafficking victims, despite being mandatory under U.S. federal law[6]. Since 2011, HTLC has more than tripled the number of trafficking civil cases filed. Survivors are empowered to hold traffickers accountable through pro-bono legal representation, facilitating civil litigation and criminal restitution. Victims are treated as resilient, not vulnerable.

At The Athena Advisors, we’re driven by a passion for social justice. HTLC provides a bridge to justice for trafficking victims, and we are proud to support them.

[1] The Freedom Fund (2020) Taking a ‘Gender Perspective’ on Human Trafficking Means Investing in Women’s Leadership.

[2] Anti-Slavery International (2019) Modern Slavery Fact Sheet.

[3] International Labour Organisation (2020) COVID-19 Impact on Child Labour and Forced Labour: The Response of the IPEC+ Flagship Programme.

[4] European Commission (2016) Study on the Gender Dimension of Trafficking in Human Beings.

[5] International Labour Organisation (2017) Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage.

[6] The Human Trafficking Legal Center (2018) United States Federal Courts’ Continuing Failure to Order Mandatory Criminal Restitution for Human Trafficking Victims.