Equality & Inclusion

We are committed to working with partner agencies to improve gender equality and social inclusion.

ASEAN-ACT’s support for equality and inclusion is about removing obstacles faced by groups most affected by trafficking in persons.

We create opportunities to connect non-government organisations, civil society and the private sector with justice officials responsible for trafficking-related policies and reforms. ASEAN-ACT also helps extend existing areas of effective engagement between justice officials and actors outside of the justice system.

This engagement promotes equality and inclusion in counter-trafficking by developing new ways of working and forging sustainable links to improve policy dialogue. In particular, ASEAN supports joint policy dialogue and learning between justice officials and victim support agencies on critical issues of mutual interest. We are guided by and support our partners with ensuring the Do No Harm principles are applied.

Victim support agencies can make valuable contributions to counter-trafficking policy processes and reform, but don’t always have strong links to the justice sector. ASEAN-ACT helps identify and connect key state and non-state actors involved in trafficking in persons policy reform.

Inclusion, equality and victim rights

ASEAN-ACT’s support assists national justice agencies to uphold the rights of trafficking victims, with a focus on gender equality and social inclusion. As the nature of trafficking is changing, so too must the support to victims of trafficking. However, it is important that this approach is contextualised for each country to appropriately meet their needs and provide the best support to victims. 

Women and girls

Although exact numbers are unknown, women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking:

  • Women and girls account for 99 per cent of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58 per cent in other sectors.[1]
  • The Asia–Pacific region is thought to have the world’s largest number of women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking, comprising around 70 per cent of female victims globally.[2]
  • In the East Asia and Pacific region, 49 per cent of all persons prosecuted, and 40 per cent of those convicted of trafficking in persons, are women.[3]

Within the sex trafficking industry, women comprise the majority of victims, but women are also often the recruiters. It is not uncommon for the recruiters to be former trafficking victims or someone known to the victim, such as someone from the victim’s home town.[4]

Women and girls who are victims or witnesses of trafficking face institutional barriers as they try to navigate a male-dominated justice system and access support services.

Women may not be offered a choice of victim support services, they may be detained while awaiting trial, and they may face discrimination or secondary abuse, including gender-based violence at the hands of the justice officials.[5]

Throughout the region, forced marriage – particularly of underage girls – is an urgent issue.

1. International Labour Organization and Walk Free Foundation (2017), Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage.
2. Ibid.
3. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2017), Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2016.
4. Ibid.
5. Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2010), Beyond Borders: Exploring the Links between Trafficking and Gender, Working Paper Series 2010.

Men and boys

Gender-related barriers and risks faced by male victims of trafficking are not well understood or accommodated.

In the Greater Mekong region, men and boys comprise nearly two-thirds of trafficked and forced labourers in low-skilled labour sectors, including fishing, agriculture and factory work.[6]

As these men and boys tend to work in unregulated jobs in high-risk sectors, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse and extreme occupational hazards.

Gendered expectations on men as financially responsible for their families, and stereotypes that men are not trafficked, mean that male victims may not self-identify as victims.

Men may be forced into labour through debt-based coercion, passport confiscation, threats of physical or financial harm, or fraudulent recruitment. Male victims of trafficking may also be arrested and prosecuted for the unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to engage in.[7]

When male victims are identified, they have less access to targeted psychosocial and protection services (such as being ineligible for public or private shelters) than women. This lack of access negatively impacts their cases and may lead to them being re-trafficked.

Male victims are commonly misidentified as irregular migrants, and transferred to immigration detention facilities pending deportation.

6. Nicola Pocock, Ligia Kiss, Sian Oram and Cathy Zimmerman (2016), ‘Labour trafficking among men and boys in the Greater Mekong subregion: Exploitation, violence, occupational health risks and injuries’, PLOS ONE, 11(12): e0168500.
7. US Department of State (2019), Trafficking in Persons Report: June 2019.

People living with disability

The majority of men, women and children living with disability in the ASEAN region are poor and are more likely to have their human rights overlooked than people without disability.[8]

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people with disability who do not have protection within their communities may be vulnerable to trafficking in persons.

Victims of trafficking in persons may become disabled as a result of harm caused by the trafficking experience. This is particularly relevant for victims of organ trafficking, the majority of whom are men.[9]

People with disability may also face a host of physical, communication and attitudinal barriers when accessing legal processes. For example, criminal justice officers may not know or understand what services are available for people with disability who are victims of crimes.[10]

At the same time, a person’s disability may lead criminal justice professionals to overlook them as credible witnesses.

People with mobility issues may face physical impediments in accessing criminal justice institutions to make complaints. The availability of targeted support services is not always available for people living with disability.

Finally, people with disability are poorly represented in criminal justice agencies throughout the region, and there is little information and understanding of the hurdles they face when applying for jobs or ongoing challenges they experience at work.

8. Disabled World (2017), ‘Disability news for Asia and Pacific regions’, https://www.disabled-world.com/news/asia.
9. Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (2017), ‘The gender dimensions of human trafficking’, issue brief no. 4 (September).
10. Australia–Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons (2018), ‘Gender Toolkit: A guide for criminal justice practitioners in the ASEAN region’.

Ethnic minorities

Although the data is incomplete, trafficking victims in Southeast Asia tend to be young, poor and ethnically diverse.

For example, young women and girls aged 15 to 25 from ethnic minority groups living in border areas of Thailand, such as the Mon–Khmer and Tibeto-Burman peoples, are disproportionately represented in statistics on trafficking in persons victims.[11]

Khmu girls from the northern provinces of Lao PDR have also been identified as the majority of victims of trafficking for forced marriage to China and Thailand.[12]

Of the Cambodian victims rescued in 2014–2015, most originated from ethnic minority groups in Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom and Kandal provinces.[13]

Ethnicity, when coupled with geographic location, poverty, gender and limited education, increases the vulnerability of some ethnic minority groups in the region to certain types of trafficking in persons, especially trafficking for marriage, sex work and labour.

Ethnic minority people may be further disadvantaged when trying to access justice organisations and support services due to their limited education, language differences, or prejudice and discrimination from officials.

11. Asian Development Bank and World Bank (2012), Lao PDR Country Gender Assessment, p. 3.
12. Vongsa Chayavong (2016), ‘Protection of trafficked Khmu girls from Lao PDR: Cases of pre-reintegration, process and human security in Thailand’, paper presented at 13th Asia Pacific Sociological Association Conference, Phnom Penh, 24–25 September 2016. Cited in ECPAT International (2017), Global Monitoring: Status of Action Against Sexual Exploitation of Children: Lao PDR.
13. Human Rights Watch (2015), “Work Faster or Get Out”: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry.

Migrants and stateless people

Communities that are disrupted and displaced by armed conflict or other adversities face an increased risk of trafficking.

A study on the nexus between statelessness and trafficking in Thailand found that stateless people, especially men without work opportunities and official papers, were more likely to take risks associated with labour migration and were vulnerable to being trafficked.[14]

Migrants and stateless people face a host of obstacles when accessing support services and interacting with justice agencies due to their lack of citizenship and identification documents, and limited or no ability to speak the local language.

14. Conny Rijken, Laura van Waas, Martin Gramatikov and Deirdre Brennan (2015), The Nexus between Statelessness and Human Trafficking in Thailand, Oisterwijk: Wolf Legal Publishers.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people who are excluded from their communities may become vulnerable to sex or labour trafficking.

Without strong support networks, LGBTQI people may find it difficult to access decent housing and work and may fall through the cracks of society, making them easy targets for human traffickers.

LGBTQI victims of trafficking may have difficulty accessing victim support services or face discrimination and bias while navigating the criminal justice system.