20 October 2020

Fighting Stacked Odds: Q&A With Jacqueline Joudo Larsen on Modern Slavery

One in every 130 women and girls worldwide is living in modern slavery, according to the new Stacked Odds report launched by Walk Free and Every Woman Every Child. Child marriage is a serious problem worldwide, and research suggests that the phenomenon will become more widespread due to the impact of COVID-19 and its prevention responses. It remains an area where we must protect the progress made so far, and work together to achieve gender equality and ensure that all women and girls live up to their full potential.

For a deeper dive into the new report, we interviewed Walk Free’s Global Research Lead Jacqueline Joudo Larsen on stories from the new report, why child marriage cannot be addressed in isolation, and what governments can do.

What is the methodology of the new report? How did you come to the conclusion that 1 in 130 girls are victims of modern slavery and how does that number compare to previous estimates?

One of the key findings of the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery that Walk Free produced with the ILO and IOM was that 71% of all people living in modern slavery were female.

Our methods in the Global Estimates:

As no single source provides suitable and reliable data for all forms of modern slavery, we adopted a combined methodology to produce estimates at the regional and global level.

The central element was 54 specially designed, national probabilistic surveys involving interviews with more than 71,000 respondents across 48 countries for estimates of forced labour and forced marriage.

We also drew on case data from IOM’s victims of trafficking database which contained information on 30,000 victims of trafficking around the world who had received assistance from the agency.

Importantly, this 1 in 130 number should be taken as a baseline estimate. Our estimates in the Arab States are impeded by inability to adequately survey forms of modern slavery that predominantly affect women and girls, for example, forced marriage. Data from other sources suggests our estimate is an underrepresentation.  The real current scale of modern slavery for women and girls is likely far higher, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. 

While putting together the report, did the team come across any particular stories that stood out or were especially affecting?

In drafting this report, the team read over 80 survivor stories from countries around the world. Each story was horrific and heart-rending in its own way – but what was truly overwhelming was the pattern that emerged from these stories: the real examples of iterations of gender inequality exposing women and girls to modern slavery. 

In terms of individual stories, we try not to compare trauma with trauma. This kind of pain is unquantifiable, and incomparable. If a survivor feels comfortable in sharing the details of their lived experience, this should not determine whether their story is more or less deserving of empathy or attention than another, who may not want to re-live those details.

Something that will stay with the team long after this report is survivors’ resiliency in the face of truly awful circumstances. We have seen case studies from all over the world, where despite continued oppression and abuse, survivors have hope for the future, and continue to seek justice for themselves, and for others. We have had the privilege to witness the unending strength in these women and girls, who simply never give up fighting for a better tomorrow.

By way of one example, Purity (not her real name) is a 38-year-old woman in Kenya. As a young girl, she was subjected to FGM, and soon after taken out of school as her father considered that being able to sign her name was sufficient for her education. Shortly thereafter, Purity was forced by her father to marry to a far older man when she was only 14 years old. Her new husband subjected to her domestic servitude, forced sexual exploitation, domestic violence, death threats, forcibly married off one of her daughters despite her protests, and repeatedly tried to starve her and her children. And despite all of this, Purity still has hope, and the determination, to try and change the story for her children. Against her husband’s wishes, and in the face of his violence and threats, Purity accepted assistance from a local NGO to better the lives of her children. In her words:

“It is very hard to live. But I have hope of seeing a bright dawn. My children are being sponsored  by [NGO]. I know when they get good education which will one day change their lives and mine. I wish I was not married young; my life would be so different now.”

How has COVID-19 affected the experience of modern slavery and the problems that must be fixed?

Like most crisis situations, COVID-19 has exacerbated the risks facing already vulnerable populations, like women and girls. Traditional gender roles which cast women and girls as caretakers in the home increase their risk of contracting the disease: and similarly, women often at the frontline- in care work and nursing- experience increased risk of disease. 

Economic impact of COVID-19 also increases risk to modern slavery.

  • There are reports of an increase in child marriages in some areas as families are faced with financial pressure due to COVID. Increase in child marriages, eg in Nepal, Kenya, and other countries. COVID-19 has increased unemployment, especially for those working in informal sectors.
  • Garment industry particularly affected (for example, garment workers forced to continue working in factories in Leicester).
  • Sex workers disproportionately affected. Anecdotally seen increase in live streaming and sexual exploitation of women and girls during the pandemic.

Domestic work- increase in violence, increase in wages being withheld, and closing borders led to workers being stranded with few options before them beyond starvation and homelessness and slavery.

When COVID hit the Gulf States, closing borders led to workers being stranded, increasing vulnerability and increase in homelessness. Workers already vulnerable because of kafala system left at further risk as no protections in country. In Lebanon, we have seen the compacted impact of disasters including the financial collapse, COVID-19, and the Beirut blast on domestic workers: as noted by This is Lebanon in our Stacked Odds report, these multiple disasters in addition to the exploitative kafala system, allows employers to operate in a climate of impunity.

Measures designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 also disrupt existing responses for victims. For example, for those who have already experienced modern slavery and are vulnerable to re-exploitation, the closure of shelters, disruption to criminal justice, unsafe migration increases risk of re-traumatisation. For example, we have seen this in the UK, where insecure immigration status, isolation, poverty, poor housing conditions, underlying health conditions, lack of access prevent victims from seeking assistance, leaving them vulnerable to re-exploitation. In the wake of COVID-19, Governments should urgently provide vulnerable migrants with access to temporary visas, facilitate safe repatriation, and provide access to victim services.

The report points out that modern slavery cannot be tackled alone. Rather, its root causes—including gender equality—must be addressed. Can you talk a little more about those root causes and why it’s necessary to have a multi-pronged approach?

At the heart of it all is the view that girls hold less value than boys. Girls’ value is tied to their future role as a wife and mother: while boys’ value is linked with economic earning. In many parts of the world, girls are seen as a drain on family resources as it is expected they will one day marry and join another family, and in doing so won’t bring an economic benefit to their family.

Boys on the other hand, often inherit family assets, are seen as having more future earning potential, and as the ones to rely on to care for elderly parents. Through sex selection during pregnancy, combined with infanticide, this preference for sons is in part to blame for reduced birth and survival rates of infant girls which in turn, contributes to the nearly 130 million missing women in the world. And this imbalance in the sex ratio itself also contributes to the risk of modern slavery: in countries like China and India, which together account for 84 per cent of the world’s missing women, women and girls are trafficked domestically and internationally trafficked from neighbouring countries for marriage.

Existing attitudes about the role of girls can prevent them entering or completing school. Many societies consider the education of girls to be an unnecessary investment, making girls more vulnerable to child marriage, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery. From an early age, girls are disproportionately at risk of gender-based violence. This limits their social and economic mobility – and in doing so, increases the risk of child marriage, trafficking, and exploitation.

In situations of widespread disaster, like war zones, women and girls are not only disproportionately affected, but their vulnerability to slavery and trafficking continues to rise. Embedding interventions that take into account the specific needs of women and girls in humanitarian action plans is urgently necessary, particularly in order to combat the increased risk to modern slavery that women and girls face in crisis situations. And in many countries, laws and systems can exacerbate, rather than protect from modern slavery.  This is typically the case where laws entrench gender inequality and reflect the opinion set out above: that girls are of less value than boys. Gender discriminatory laws can prevent women from inheriting land and assets, conferring citizenship on their children and traveling freely.

Laws must change to signal the minimum that we are wiling to accept as the standard for girls, however, there needs to be a corresponding shift in attitudes through awareness raising campaigns and behavioural change interventions. For modern slavery to be truly abolished, attitudes that devalue women and girls must be uprooted wherever they are found. 

Can you talk in more detail about the recommendations in the report? What are some of the most important policy/legislative changes that governments must make?

This report is a blueprint for change and a wakeup call for governments and citizens everywhere. No country is doing enough to disrupt gender inequality and meet the SDGs. No country is doing enough to end modern slavery. Particularly given the impact of COVID-19, there is no time to slow down the fight against modern slavery, and its key drivers like gender inequality.

It is incredibly important that governments remove gender discrimination from within their legal frameworks. Specifically, we are calling on governments to legislate against forced and child marriage, to eradicate systems which normalise the exploitation of migrant workers, such as kafala, and to prioritise supply chain transparency to ensure workers are protected.

Other areas to act on include overturning laws and practices that strip women of their rights and agency, such as inheritance and citizenship laws. Law and culture must change together to reduce the risk of modern slavery for women and girls: It is also important for governments to challenge cultural norms which allow harmful and exploitative practices to continue.