Female Victims of Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation as Defendants

A UNODC case law analysis of the role of female victims of sexual exploitation in human trafficking related crimes

The role played by female victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the criminal strategy of HT organizations is the main focus of an analysis recently published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The data collected by the UNODC over the years – already summarized in the 2018 Global report – has in fact highlighted that more than 30% of trafficking in persons prosecutions and convictions involve female offenders, many of which were trafficked and exploited victims themselves.

The study includes a qualitative analysis of 53 cases from 12 different jurisdictions (identified in the UNODC official database), spanning the period from 2006 to 2020. Aiming to shed light on the alarming trend of women victims of trafficking being prosecuted and convicted as criminal offenders, it addresses the specific role they play in criminal organizations, their relationship with the trafficker and the motivations behind their participation in the criminal activities.

The UNODC analysis therefore highlights some of the main aspects of the phenomenon in question, namely:

  • it emphasizes how victims are frequently used by traffickers to shield themselves from prosecution, being instructed to commit acts in close proximity to the exploitation of new victims (recruitment, control, collection of the proceeds of the exploitation...) which expose them to a greater risk of detection by law enforcement authorities;
  • it highlights how, in many cases, the exploitation of the victims-defendants continues even during the period in which they participate in the trafficking process;
  • it brings attention to the close link between trafficking in human beings and genderbased violence: around 25% of the victims who had been prosecuted for trafficking offences had also been subjected, before or during their exploitation, to sexual violence, domestic violence, forced or child marriage or forms of sexual slavery;
  • it confirms how frequently the victim-defendant and the trafficker share a romantic or familiar relationship, revealing scenarios in which violence and abuses were normalized to the extent that the women were unaware of their status as victims;
  • it examines how the victims’ roles in offending often reveal a different set of motives from those typically attributed to traffickers, such as the desire to alleviate their own condition of exploitation or the impossibility of disobeying the orders of the trafficker.

The study also focuses on the different breadth attributed in the various legal systems to the concepts of coercion and abuse of a position of vulnerability relevant to the notion of trafficking in human beings defined by the 2000 Palermo Protocol; above all, it stresses the difficulties expressed by the States in implementing and applying the non-punishment principle, which requires the States to refrain from prosecuting victims of trafficking in human beings for their involvement in criminal activities which they have been compelled to commit as a direct consequence of being trafficked.

The UNODC report can be consulted here.

(Silvia Bernardi)