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The Female Burden and the International Political Economy of Sex Trafficking
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With the advent of neo-liberal reforms and the subsequent economic and social decline felt in the Global South, a booming market and transnational enterprise emerged catering to the buying and selling of people—namely women.  Neo-liberal reforms worsened already dire situations of poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment in the least developed countries (LDCs) of the Global South, leading many women and girls to seek out sources of employment beyond their homes’ borders. This feminization of migration since the 1980s has led to a boom in the modern slave trade—better known as sex trafficking, as women become commodified and are stripped of their human rights in search of a better life and a means of providing for their family. This illustrates yet another case of the North-South political economic gap, which can only be closed when we adopt a feminist political economy approach. Such a lens is capable of explaining the economic, political, and social disparities between countries within the Global North and South that lead to female coercion and debasement and begin to change such a status quo.

Keywords: neo-liberal, sex trade, sex trafficking, women, human rights

A 24 year old woman from Thailand lives her life in the confines of the red light district of an urban metropole thousands of miles away from her homeland. She is one of the millions of women trafficked from the Global South to the Global North. Her life is no longer her own. She has been commodified: used and abused by the dynamics of global sex trafficking—yet another example of the North-South political economic divide present in our world today. Beginning in 1980, following the emergence of the debt crisis in the Global South, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB), institutions led by the Global North, promised relief would come to the struggling nations if they underwent a neo-liberal reform process. However, a chasm exists between the reality that has unfolded since 1980 and the illusion that was promised. Unemployment, poor development, urban migration, and poverty increased in the least developed nations (LDCs) as a result of such recommendations. The burden was most heavily felt, however, by these nations’ women. Women are “overwhelmingly and everywhere the poorest of the poor” (Pettman, 1996) and these development strategies only served to further undermine their economic and social position. The global political economy of sex links such incidences of poverty and poor development with migration flows and the current gendered division of labor to explain the ultimate boom in the sex trafficking of women that erupted in the years following the 1980s (Pettman, 2003). The advent of neo-liberal reforms has led to a surge in sex trafficking of women and the emergence of a growing transnational enterprise increasingly used as a means of sustaining a livelihood for women of the Global South and their dependents.  

Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking refers to the migration within or across local, national, and international borders for the purpose of sexual exploitation. It can occur voluntarily through “initial consent” or by means of “force, coercion, manipulation, [or] deception” (Hughes, 2000). A woman may be aware of the nature of her job initially, only to find upon arrival a different reality that violates her fundamental human rights due to incidents of sexual violence and/or exploitation (e.g. assault, rape, harassment, and even higher than average rates of HIV/AIDS) (Berton , 2000). Such human rights abuses include infection rates due to little knowledge of STDs and little to no ability to enforce safe practices. The migration networks of the sex trade - webs of interconnected states and regions intertwined through continuous flows of sex workers - reveal an “international political economy of migration” (Piper, 2003; Pettman, 2003) in which people move from poor countries in the Global South to rich countries in the Global North as a result of the supply and demand of the sex trade.   

Above all, it is important to see that these trafficking networks partake in the buying and selling of men, women, and children for sexual exploitation (Limoncelli, 2009). Though it is impossible to be sure of the exact number, about 4.5 million men, women, and children are currently engaged in forced sexual exploitation of sex trafficking (ILO, 2012). The overwhelming majority of those trapped in forced sexual exploitation are women and girls (1LO, 2012). According to the Global Slavery Index, a mere ten nations, all in the Global South, account for over 75 percent of the world’s enslaved people. They include: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. This sale of people, women in particular—a modern-day slave trade—is currently the third largest illegal trade commodity, worth thirty-two billion dollars (US), after that of drugs and weaponry (Williams, 2014). To further understand the vastness of this industry, an alternative proxy for measuring the proliferation of contemporary sex trafficking can be used: the expansion of the informal economy as a percentage of GDP for each country in which sex trafficking occurs. The informal economy is “unregulated by the institutions of society, in a legal and social environment in which similar activities are regulated” (Miller, 2006). Sex trafficking, as an activity of the informal economy, can be measured in this way. As we will see below in the discussion of neo-liberalism, if economic growth does not go hand in hand with greater employment opportunities, the informal economy will continue to grow as the formal means of labor cannot satisfy the surplus in labor (Becker, 2004). Therefore, women, for example, are driven due to a lack of employment from the formal economy into the informal economy employment of the sex trade. Current estimates show that the nonagricultural employment share of the informal workforce is 78 percent in Africa, 57 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 45–85 percent in Asia (Becker, 2004).

The nature of the current sex trafficking network is commented on by radical feminists and sex work feminists. The former upholds a “gendered critique of prostitution” within this trade network against the latter’s belief that prostitution in the sex trade is a legitimate form of work (Limoncelli, 2009). Radical feminists see the prostitution of the sex trafficking as a by-product of the “patriarchy and a form of sex slavery” that violates women’s human rights and perpetuates gender inequality and exploitation of women (Limoncelli, 2009). Those who see this form of activity as a legitimate form of labor argue for the agency and empowerment of women (Limoncelli, 2009). Sex work feminists call upon the fact that women make the choice to work in prostitution and other forms of sexual labor and envision that a process of formalization of the industry will ensure women are protected by appropriate labor rights and regulations (Limoncelli, 2009).  

At its core, however, the contemporary sex trade is a product of the political economy of the globalization of neo-liberalism, illustrating globalization as a process by which women are commodified “in the most base and demoralizing ways” (Berton, 2000; Limoncelli, 2009). Globalization has led to demands and opportunities for particular types of service work that are largely suitable for women. Additionally due to globalization, the means by which to seek such jobs has greatly increased with the advent of deregulation, free trade, and an increasingly “flattened” world. There is a supply—the poor women of the Global South pouring into the trade as a result of the impacts of restructuring, rural poverty, and urban unemployment in their homeland—and a demand— by men from both the industrialized and developing countries in this human commodity trade (Berton, 2000; Pettman, 1996). Both prevailing views discussed fail to grasp, however, that after the 1980s and the surge in neo-liberal globalization, women’s “basic economic security and well-being” were bleak at best. Neo-liberalist reforms of the 1980s left a lack of options for women of the Global South outside sectors such as the slave trade and trafficking (Limoncelli, 2009). Women may have agency in choosing prostitution and sexual labor as their preferred means of earning a living. However, if this is one of their only options due to unemployment and poverty rates in their country, is it really even agency at all?

Neo-Liberalism and the Sex Trade Boom

While the sex trade has existed for centuries, the magnitude of today’s trade stands out in comparison to the past. The sex trafficking networks have multiplied greatly in the past few decades since the advent of the 1980 neo-liberal reforms in the crisis-shocked nations of the Global South (Berton, 2000).

The Indirect Effect of Neo-Liberal Policies on the Sex Trade

After World War II, most developing countries began opting out of the international trade system. Barriers were erected and economies insulated and closed off as countries of the Global South adopted Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) strategies as their preferred means of development. However, this strategy would fail them in the 1980s as crisis hit in the form of fiscal deficits and current account deficits brought about by the inefficiencies and imbalances of the system (Oatley, 2013). Debt relief came in the form of a conditionality agreement: the adoption of the neo-liberal model preferred by Global North in exchange for aid and relief. The LDCs took the bait as can be seen by the increasing number of country participants in each successive round of negotiations for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization (GATT/WTO), an indication of the enactment of neo-liberal reform (Oatley, 2013). The neo-liberal model was believed to be the best possible path to economic development by the Global North. However, while development can create new wealth and growth, it can also lead to poverty and misery in “the periphery” (Kelly, 2004). Therefore, beginning in 1980, the modern-day slave trade that is sex trafficking emerged “in the name of development” (Berton, 2000).

The commencement of such a transformation in developing nations’ economies give rise to “prime conditions for trafficking” to take place (Berton, 2000). As firms closed in the traditional sectors, which were previously oriented to national and not export markets, rural unemployment rose and many left for the urban cities in search of jobs, only to find that the new export-oriented industries were not absorbing surplus labor. As a result, poverty rates increased. At the same time, however, a change in the role of the woman took place as the gendered effects of globalization created a rapid demand for women’s labor due to its perceived temporary, supplementary, submissive, and cheap nature (Pettman, 2003). Women became more independent from their families and frequently became the main family breadwinner. Therefore, as structural adjustments reduced social provisions and state responsibilities for state economy and welfare of its people, social costs felt by these women became privatized as they extended “more time, effort, energy on survival and family maintenance work” (Pettman, 2003; Berton, 2000). A “feminization of poverty” (Kelly, 2004; Sanghera, 1998) emerged as women found themselves facing a lack of options for employment due to gendered effects of trade policies, globalization, and the neo-liberal model that were quite different than those felt by men due to different economic and social roles and access and control of resources between each sex. Women were more highly affected by the negativities of globalization and neo-liberal policies due to pre-existing gender biases and inequalities in education, training, and access to resources that led to “significant gender differences in occupational distribution” (IANWGE , 2011).  

As women’s share of the labor force participation increased in their home countries, they were still left to the markets and sectors in which they were vulnerable to poor conditions and the least protection. Social barriers, such as limited education and skills, made it impossible to improve their lot at home (IANWGE , 2011). As a result of this truth, more and more women of the Global South found themselves on “the move for work or just to survive,” leading to the observed phenomenon known as the “feminization of migration” (Pettman, 2003; Kelly, 2004). Not only are women “dominating cross-border flows, but they do so under increasingly precarious conditions” (Piper, 2003), one condition being the act of trafficking from the Global South to the Global North in search of better wages and opportunities.

A clear sequence of events, therefore, erupted in the 1980s to clearly position the sex trade and sex trafficking industry as the best possible alternative for many women to voluntarily opt into. The feminization of poverty due to unequal effects of globalization and neo-liberal reforms felt by women pushed them to seek alternative sources of labor and wages, leading to a feminization of migration that could possibly push women into a the networks of the sex trade as there are still only “particular niches in labor markets in receiving states” that women can fill—one of which includes prostitution and sex trafficking (Kelly, 2004; Pettman, 2003). In fact, a unique aspect of present-day migration, and by extension of sex trafficking, is that it is mostly driven by supply-push factors, or the “circumstances in the country of origin such as unfavorable economic, social or political conditions” created by neo-liberal policies (Ucarer, 1999).

Therefore, poverty brought about by neo-liberal reforms can be seen as a “form of coercion” which “makes prostitution a viable option” (Pettman, 2003). To be more concise, “prostitution is indeed the twin sibling of poverty” (Sanghera, 1998). This understanding explains in further detail why the prevalent radical feminist and sex worker views of sex trafficking and the sex trade are limited and fail to capture the fact that women are given little alternative options to provide for their families and therefore become both agents and victims in this business.

The Direct Effect of Neo-Liberal Policies on the Sex Trade

Up to this point, we have observed the indirect effects of neo-liberalism on the proliferation of contemporary sex trafficking networks by looking at migration patterns across international borders, but as the definition presented at the beginning of the paper suggests, sex trafficking can occur between local borders within a nation itself. It is within the context of a more localized sex trade that the neo-liberal reforms and the recommendations of the World Bank and IMF have played a more direct hand in encouraging the contemporary sex trade.

Beginning in the 1980s, the sex trade, and by extension sex trafficking, was accepted as an aspect of development that crisis-shocked nations could adopt (Sanghera, 1998). Prostitution could contribute to development. As a means of meeting their balance of payments and deficits, the nations of the Global South were encouraged by the World Bank and IMF to develop their tourism and entertainment industries. However, developing countries quickly spurred the incorporation of the sex trade into the mix of tourist and leisure activities (Sanghera, 1998). This specific form of sex trafficking and trade is known as sex tourism. The World Bank and the IMF, ambassadors of globalization, encouraged such development strategies, thereby conferring an unofficial international legitimacy upon sex tourism and entertainment. Women are not only commodified in this way, but are seen as a “new raw resource,” constituting “the prime export item for national development and international trade” (Sanghera, 1998).

Additionally, very poor developing countries also benefit from women in the international sex trade in another way outside the tourism and leisure industries: the receipt of remittances in the home country. It is considered a “positive contribution of female migration to developing countries” (IANWGE, 2011). They constitute an important source of income and foreign exchange in poor developing countries as “formal and informal remittances are estimated to be three times the size of official development assistance” (IANWGE , 2011). The flow of remittances is considered an important part of the macro-level development strategies of struggling economies. For example, in the Philippines, remittances on average can comprise over 10 percent of the country’s income (Jeffreys, 2009).


The contemporary global political economy of sex links poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment brought about by neo-liberal reforms and globalization with international flows of women and girls for sexual exploitation into sex trafficking networks. Women’s human rights are abused and neglected as they become commodities and mere raw resources in the political economy of trafficking—moving from poor regions to wealthier ones—in search of a better life. More often than not, however, the reality of the “better life” is worse than the old one they knew.

Female rights and security under the new era of globalization are bleak. Therefore, in concurrence with many prior scholars who argue this point such as Limoncelli (2009), a feminist political economy approach is essential as it is capable of identifying “social relations under global capitalism in all of their racial/ethnic, class, national and gendered configurations.” Under such a lens, we can better understand the economic, political, and social disparities between countries within the Global North and South that lead to female coercion and debasement and begin to change such a status quo. Female agency in terms of the sex trade from the Global South to the Global North is hardly agency at all, as the current era of globalization has coerced and forced women into a specialized niche of servitude and human insecurity. 

Layla Abi-Falah is a senior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia majoring in International Relations with a concentration in Human Rights in the Middle East and Africa. She is currently involved in two research projects under the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations. As a senior research assistant at the Center for African Development, Abi-Falah is studying the roots of spatial inequality in Sub-Saharan African countries and the means by which violence can effect such spatial inequity. Her research findings will be presented in November at the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) TechCon conference hosted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by USAID.  She also works as a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, an undergraduate think tank at the College of William and Mary, which makes policy recommendations to the D.C. policy community every spring.  Abi-Falah is currently working on a policy proposal that deals with the issue of rape as a tool of war in modern-armed conflict. Following undergrad, she hopes to attend law school and eventually become a human rights lawyer dedicated to the fight for human rights for women and children in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.


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