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Women and girls at increased risk from online trafficking during the pandemic

Credit: Tim Tebow Foundation on Unsplash

With more victims than ever being targeted online, a UN committee has warned tech companies to tighten controls and governments to step up efforts to target the root causes of trafficking.

A UN women's rights committee has called on governments to crack down on the trafficking of women and girls, raising concerns over the increased threat of social media being used as a way to target victims during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In its recommendation presented to the UN in Geneva last week, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found that perpetrators increasingly identify and prey on victims using the internet, particularly via social media and messaging apps. The committee found that the pandemic has accelerated recent trends of traffickers moving online to recruit women and girls while more traditional methods are limited.

“Traffickers simply moved online like all of our lives moved online,” Dalia Leinarte, the committee member who led the drafting of the recommendation, told Geneva Solutions.

The internet also grants traffickers and clients more anonymity and access to huge numbers of women and girls who are increasingly vulnerable due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors, Leinarte explained.

“Digital technologies are now more advanced, meaning traffickers and clients have more possibilities to hide their identities,” she said. “Right now traffickers do not target women sporadically. They are targeting very focused groups, for example, underage girls who are now not in school, but they are sitting at home online. They are targeting children - not just children, but children whose parents have problems with alcohol, with substance dependencies, refugee children, stateless children. ”

She added that the deteriorating economic situation in many countries during the pandemic has left women in particular increasingly desperate. “People, including women, are losing jobs,” she said. “When they are single parents they are looking for possibilities to survive ... they are not able to provide for their children, so it's very natural that they are becoming more vulnerable.”

CEDAW called on social media and technology companies to introduce tighter controls to reduce the risk posed to women and girls online, including moving away from digital currencies that grant perpetrators anonymity. The committee also urged the companies to harness their data to actively identify traffickers and clients using their services.

Leinarte gave the example of social media companies tightening their regulations to flag inaccuracies or “fake news” related to elections over the past few years - a move that became particularly prominent in the run-up to the recent election in the United States.

“Facebook or Twitter could use this power to detect if some individuals are reaching underaged girls by the thousands. It should be flagged, ”she explained. “So state parties and companies should work towards this.”

The committee experts also urged governments to address the root causes that make women and girls vulnerable to trafficking. The recommendation outlined that the of these lie in gender-based discrimination, including unsafe migration majority and asylum systems that leave women and girls at increased risk, as well as during conflict and humanitarian crises.

Leinarte highlighted the tendency to separate men, women and families at refugee camps, allowing perpetrators easy access to victims. “Traffickers are very quick to find those gaps in protection of refugees, asylum seekers and all victims of humanitarian crisis,” she said.

The committee called for countries to pursue public policies aimed at combating gender inequality, such as equal access to education and job opportunities. It also urged governments to create a safe migration framework to protect women and girl migrants, and emphasised the importance of constructing systems to help displaced women and girls in conflict zones and humanitarian emergencies when they are most vulnerable.

“Combating trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration requires engagement of the larger protection framework stemming from international humanitarian law, refugee law, criminal law, labor and international private law,” CEDAW said in the general recommendation.

CEDAW will work with governments and companies to help them implement the recommendations in the coming months. Leinarte emphasises the need to take a “holistic approach” to tackle trafficking, addressing root causes such as gender inequality, migration laws and the demand within populations to combat the problem once and for all.

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