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Domestic matters: violence against women and human trafficking

The relationship between violence against women (VAW) and human trafficking is often taken for granted. Historic ties between the sexual exploitation of women, prostitution and trafficking resulted in a framework in which the two became intrinsically linked. Human trafficking is frequently subsumed under VAW, as in the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, while anti-trafficking campaigners, to varying degrees, re-tell trafficking victim stories through individual experiences of VAW. For instance, NotForSale, a US-based campaign group, relies on the imagery created through a victim’s subjection to violence and abuse: “Shaking with fear, the girls went into separate bedrooms, where the portly men raped them.” Hyperbole may reinforce a specific image of trafficking heavily reliant on situations of (predominately) women raped and abused in forced prostitution. The reality is that violence and the threat of violence, including psychological and emotional abuse, are recognized indicators of coercion – for all victims of trafficking. As a result, we often lose sight of an opportunity to examine the full range of actions, causes and consequences between these intersecting forms of victimization. Although this post is concerned with women, the violence and abuse experienced by men in situations of trafficking is an area for future examination.

Arguably, any type of violence against sexually exploited women perpetuated by strangers (using the language of pimps, johns, traffickers) is easier for outsiders to digest than violence at the hands of friends, family members or acquaintances. A parallel understanding exists between public empathy of rape by stranger and rape by a spouse. In effect, reports and headlines on human trafficking re-cast that which was traditionally considered private violence into a slightly brighter, more public, spotlight. The problem with this narrative, however, is that it relies heavily on one type of experience; ignoring a host of familial and community actors who are often complicit in trafficking. In the case of foreign domestic workers (FDWs), it also raises an interesting question about the degree of separation between women suffering in their own homes by their partner, for example, and women suffering in someone else’s home in the hands of an employer.

The recognition of (sexual) exploitation by partners is an area receiving increased attention. In the US, for instance, the media and anecdotal evidence highlight cases of prostitution and/or sex trafficking (with a focus on gangs) in which men (usually depicted as a pimp or, in quotes, “boyfriend”) exploit their partner through the commercial sex industry. In the UK, rigorous work on the relationship between minors, gangs and sexual exploitation has been completed by NGOs. The nature of these relationships warrants a critical examination between coercive elements of trafficking and coercive elements of domestic violence.

Violence against women is often cited as a contributing or risk factor of trafficking due to the vulnerability experienced by women during and after the course of the violence. According to a recent report by Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) on Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW) Trafficking in Singapore, just over 66% of interviewed women were either single or widowed mothers, while approximately 10% of women faced abusive relationships at home. These circumstances resulted in financial burdens and resource constraints that may have contributed to their choice in migration, employment and heightened levels of vulnerability while in travel or in Singapore. Further study examining these linkages would contribute to prevention efforts.

However, according to research by the Nexus Institute there exist “enormous gaps in knowledge on the links between domestic violence and trafficking in persons”. In the study, entitled, the Intersection between Trafficking and Domestic Violence,

The complexities of untangling domestic violence as a causative factor from other potential causative factors are significant. The lack of empirical data highlights the limitations in ascribing causative weight to the presence of domestic violence in the family history of a victim of trafficking in persons. Recognizing these complex factors also crystallizes why it is critical for anti-trafficking policymakers and practitioners to untangle these factors from one another to learn how they work, how they interact, and how to devise more effective prevention strategies.

Although overlooked, the intersection between trafficking and VAW don’t necessarily stop at the border. Anette Brunovskis and Rebecca Surtees have researched the (re)integration experiences of trafficked women and girls in street prostitution. They found that within families and communities, “the two main sources of additional stress on and conflict in families post-trafficking are tied to financial hardship and stigma”.

There is a need to broaden our understanding of situations of violence or abuse experienced by exploited women. In Singapore, for instance, FDWs may be subjected to physical, sexual and psychological violence and/or abuse from their employment agent, their employer (even another employee), or their intimate partner. The first two experiences are considered to be indicators of trafficking. HOME’s study found that, of the 151 women interviewed in the study, during time spent in agency accommodation awaiting placement with a residential employer, 32 reported verbal abuse, four reported physical abuse, and one reported sexual abuse. In addition to other coercive tactics, just under 24% of women interviewed reported physical violence (including sexual abuse) by both employer and employment agent, while 75.5% of women reported verbal abuse by their employer and/or agent.

The third instance may not be indicative of or related to trafficking, but the presence of abuse speaks to larger concerns about both the potential reasons for migration. The study above did not look at abuse or violence by intimate partners, nor is the sample is necessarily reflective of the FDW community in Singapore at large due to the nature of the study (conducted with women seeking HOME’s services). However, the data does bring to light questions regarding systematic gaps in service provision for FDWs in Singapore, for example, by police or healthcare services.

In practice, these two forms of victimization are often treated separately, particularly when it comes to migrant women. To our knowledge, appropriate protections and access to services are only available to Singaporean victims of domestic violence as well as foreign wives of Singaporeans. In the case of FDWs, women live with their employer; they depend on them for medical care, food and income and often need permission to leave home/work. Domestic workers are also excluded from the Employment Act, TWC2 explains, “as the government maintains that because they work in a private household, the Employment Act would be too difficult to enforce”. Provisions under this law would include medical and annual leave, working hour limits and minimum wage guarantees. Additionally, if the newly granted day off for FDWs in Singapore was enforced, and a worker was ensured the right to leave the house, she would be more likely, and able, to get help.

Employment and immigration vulnerabilities, as outlined above, consequently affect an individual’s ability to access criminal justice. Doing so may negatively impact that individual’s ability to generate income, or lead to the potential termination of an employment contract and/or forced repatriation. Cases in which workers exhibit physical symptoms of abuse are taken seriously by authorities and easily referred to the policy; however, other forms of abuse, such as coercion, are difficult to prove.

The current referral process of victims by and between NGOs working on migration/labor issues and those working on violence against women leaves much to be desired. Shelters for FDWs in need, and those allocated for women suffering abuse appear strictly delineated. Moreover, family violence shelters are not equipped with their own social workers and are reliant on service providers for case management, resulting in referral constraints to shelters. Relying on alternate forms of housing, FDWs who suffer cases of abuse may even wait a year or longer before their cases are investigated and concluded. These women may be issued special passes allowing them to work – but only as domestic workers; a potential obstacle to recovery. If they are underage (23 in Singapore), they will not be allowed to work at all, resulting in a loss of income.

For the public at large, stronger reporting systems are needed. A concerned member of the public calling about the safety of a neighbor’s domestic worker for example, may be deterred in reporting abuse if told to call back or call another NGO or government agency. This may potentially place an individual victim at greater risk by ignoring her immediate health and safety needs. In Singapore, VAW is already under-reported: according to AWARE’s CEDAW Shadow Report, in a 2007 study 51% of respondents “believed that violence in the family is a ‘private affair’”, while another poll showed almost 72% of “women abused by partners were not likely to make a police report”. In an environment in which women are already likely to under-report crimes of violence against them, institutional barriers such as these may add to a sense of frustration and lack of trust.

Despite the coordinated community approach taken by government, the Society against Family Violence in 2007 reported concerns about communication and “coordination between agencies and capacity to handle cases of gender-based violence”. The Singapore government’s current strategy to address domestic violence is centered on managing “family violence”; restricting access to certain protections, such as PPOs, to married women against spouses or ex-spouses. Moreover, we have seen no evidence that the Anti-Trafficking Taskforce has collaborated with the National Family Violence Networking System or taken up issues regarding this matter. There is also a lack of strategic coordination between women’s organizations, migrant organizations and embassies. Collaboration and capacity building between civil society organizations as well as between service providers and statutory agencies sorely needs improving. Particularly in the area of VAW, the impact of collective civil society action should not be underestimated.

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