Human trafficking, violence against women and all that

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As part of my discussions with the handful of students who take my course Women and Politics at the Cave Hill Campus, I thought it prudent to examine the struggles of women with injustice and global discrimination.

Yes, I stress that ideologies of hegemonic masculinity and femininity create separate dichotomous spheres for men and women with women being devalued and oppressed. Yes, it is that dichotomy that creates the circumstances leading to the continuation of violence against women. But it seemed to me that an appropriate approach was to locate the discussion within the context of the core rights of women as so many women are victims of gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women (VAW).

How might women escape the clutches of violence when so many women globally are not equipped to do so given their lack of education and lack of participation in the labour force? The core rights framework which emphasizes increased education for women and labour market participation is one such approach and certainly is evident in the framing of both the Millennial Development Goals and now Agenda 2030.

I have to tread carefully with the discussions because my few male students (for which I am always gratified), do believe otherwise, largely because of the progress that Barbados has made with respect to both education and labour market participation. I try to explain to them that a focus on women in this sense does not negate the fact that men and boys also face violence and that this violence is sometimes (not predominantly) inflicted by women and older men against boys. I think that they appreciate that distinction but it is still a difficult path to travel especially given the strides that women in this country have made in the labour market and in the education sector though it is not extended to the political realm. I think that they appreciate that fact, but it is still difficult to explain why women then do not walk away and continue to face violence on multiple fronts.

So, of course we need to extend the net wider and I impress upon them the implications of a global political economy which is gendered. Globalization, for instance, has resulted in a situation where there is tremendous migration for employment purposes and this, unfortunately, is not always associated with a degree of attention paid to minimum social and labour standards that would protect migrants from exploitation or violence. We know by now that migrant women workers are frequently exploited in poorly paid, and often unregulated, illegal employment as nurses, maids, nannies, sex workers and, of course, construction. And it is males who dominate the latter occupation. Such persons are therefore vulnerable to violence, working in these conditions with low social status, living in degrading housing situations and lacking basic legal protections and opportunities for redress or alternative employment and income.

Human trafficking is a logical corollary to these global developments and available evidence suggests that where women are admitted into the country as a “dependent” on their husbands’ visa, the power relations within the family shift, and there is an increase in the rates of domestic violence. Women as migrants also face violence where they have been unable to secure legal migration and so they may often resort to trafficking or smuggling and working in the informal sector where they are much more vulnerable to violence. Women as do men, also confront violence where migration laws do not give them full access to social services such as counselling or heath care. Where visas are tied to their place of employment, migrants cannot leave without losing their immigration status, even if their employment situation is abusive.

The United Nations Protocol against Trafficking in Persons in 2003 is an important milestone. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons; especially Women and Children, supplemented the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol) and recognizes the connection between vulnerability and human trafficking. It encourages state parties to take or strengthen measures to alleviate those factors that make people vulnerable to human trafficking, including poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of equal opportunity.

I therefore applaud the Elegant Group of Companies for the steps it is taking to ensure that the scourge of human trafficking does not take root in its operations. This is useful but it must be adopted across the board by all companies and governments which will see Barbados’ status on the human trafficking scale improve from what appears to be its stationary location.

It was with a sense of pride that I read the 2018 Human Trafficking Report which saw several Caribbean countries graduate from Tier 2 Watch List (meaning that the country’s commitment to stamping out human trafficking was questionable) to Tier 2 (progress being made to full compliance with global standards). These countries included St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda, which joined Barbados. Guyana, which for some years had been a source of concern, has graduated to Tier 1 (full compliance) and now joins the Bahamas in this enviable spot. What is required is more stringent legislation with adequate sanctions, both monetary and imprisonment, and greater efforts to bring human traffickers to justice.  The latter is perhaps the biggest problem for the region as few cases are prosecuted; even when there is clear evidence that human trafficking has occurred.

As I said before, women tend to be victims of violence more so than men, so that in addition to other strategies, the core rights framework underscores the confidence building effect of labour market participation and education on women. Combined, these two certainly provide women with the capacity to participate in the household economy and household political system which traditionally placed women in positions where they had little agency. It is therefore anticipated that such liberation and participation would provide women with that exit strategy when confronted with a situation of violence. And Barbados has much to be proud of in terms of its position on the global economic gender gap, ranking second.

In the member countries of the OECD, governments have been encouraged to address the gender pay gap as women earn, on average, 15 per cent less than their male counterparts. Iceland is clearly a model in this department as the government went further than merely enacting an anti-discrimination law, to become the first country in the world to make paying men more than women illegal from 2018.

As with any good piece of legislation, non-compliance is sanctioned with heavy financial penalties. But still, if we are to believe the World Economic Forum 2017, Global Gender Report Gap, it could take 100 years to close the global gender gap. Fortunately, some countries have done remarkably well (including Barbados). In Africa, Burundi closed 91 per cent of its economic gender gap, while Barbados, the Bahamas and Benin came second (88 per cent), third (87 per cent) and fourth (86 per cent), respectively.

But we do know that for all sorts of reasons, women do not leave, so that the typical argument that social mobility stemming from education and labour market participation would insulate women from multiple forms of violence does not hold. Both men and women are victims of multiple types of violence including physical, emotional, psychological, and so on.

In a recent discussion, students were slightly bemused that some of their behaviours, including the silencing, the ignoring, the constant calling and texting of their girlfriends, or boyfriends on a too regular basis may constitute a form of violence. So the opportunity to inform and perhaps get a shift in behaviour gives me great satisfaction.

(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)

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