NataliaNatalia is one of an estimated 140,000 Moldovan women who have fallen prey to sexual trafficking.

Worldwide, sexual trafficking of young people is on the rise.(1) An estimated 1.2 million children and adolescents under the age of 18 are affected every year.(2) South Asia and South-east Asia are major trafficking areas. The International Organization of Migration estimates that 225,000 women and children are trafficked annually from South-East Asia.(3) An estimated 300,000 Bangladeshi children work in brothels in India, which is a major destination country in South Asia.(4)

Data from Eastern Europe suggest that increasingly young girls are targeted by traffickers, as they can earn more money with them than with adult women.(5) A shift in demand towards younger girls is also reported in other parts of the world, like South-East Asia, where the belief that having sex with a virgin may prevent and even cure HIV/AIDS, has contributed to this effect.(6)

Trafficking is not only carried out for sexual exploitation but also assumes other forms: exploitative labour, debt bondage, domestic work, begging, marriage, involvement in armed conflicts or in illegal drug or organ trades.(7) In Africa, for example, an estimated 200,000 West and Central African minors are trafficked annually both internally and across international borders.(8) Boys are generally trafficked to work on agricultural plantations, while girls are largely exploited as domestic servants.(9) Most of those trafficked from the African continent to Western Europe are from Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco. Some were sold by their parents, and while most of them are between 17 and 20 years of age, others are as young as 14.(10)

The root causes of trafficking are multiple and complex, and include poverty, lack of employment opportunities, lack of girls’ and women’s rights, impunity from prosecution, and a general lack of education and awareness.(11) Sometimes young people are sold by their parents, who are not able to feed them, or who consent to their children going away with a relative or friend, promising to find them a good job.

The consequences of human trafficking include damage to victims’ physical or mental health, exposure to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and death. Instead of receiving assistance and protection, trafficking victims often face prosecution and imprisonment.(12) They may also be subjected to humiliating and intimidating treatment at the hands of the authorities, both in sending and receiving countries.(13) Those who have been in the sex industry are especially vulnerable to further abuse on their return. Returnees may also face serious difficulties reintegrating in their community or family, particularly if they are regarded as dishonoured or as failing to reap the benefits of their migration.(14)

Over the last few years, some progress has been made to focus attention in the international community on guaranteeing the protection of trafficking victims. For example, in Moldova UNFPA and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) have been collaborating closely to assist trafficking victims like Natalia. The IOM shelter is not far from a UNFPA-supported health centre, which offers a complete array of sexual and reproductive health services. IOM, in collaboration with UN agencies, is also providing returnees with skills training.

Yet much remains to be done. Countries affected by trafficking must ensure that national policy and action places the human rights of trafficking victims at the core of their actions in the fight against human trafficking. This is especially important to protect children and adolescents, who are the most vulnerable. International co-operation is needed to prosecute and disperse trafficking gangs. Trafficked girls who manage to escape their captors should be provided a safe place to stay, heal and recover as they prepare to rejoin the real world. They also need to receive advice and support to regain their self-esteem and confidence.