By: SOS International
*Trigger Warning, this article goes into detail about sexual abuse and warfare. Reader’s discretion is advised*
Globally, numerous unpredictable threats put girls and women at-risk of trafficking. One threat that is present currently in many areas of the world is armed conflict. Many factors lead to armed conflicts, but the results of these conflicts create a breeding ground for trafficking and sexual exploitation.
As of 2020, the UN estimates that over 2 billion people live in conflict-affected countries, and as of 2023, the World Economic Forum estimate that 339 million people need humanitarian assistance, most of whom have been affected by armed conflict. The lack of food, water, and shelter creates vulnerability for families stuck in areas of conflict or attempting to flee from those areas. The instability caused by the conflict creates a breeding ground for various forms of trafficking. These forms of trafficking include being trained for combat roles as soldiers, spies, bodyguards, and forced labor. Sexual exploitation is the most detected form of trafficking in armed conflict areas. Refugees attempting to escape conflict or facing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, or political affiliation are at-risk of being trafficked as they try to evade conflict.
When war or conflict disrupts countries, trafficking increases. Women and girls are abducted, abused, and often traded for goods by armed groups. Many armed groups use sexual exploitation as a war tactic. Sexual violence can and has been used as a weapon of war to demoralize their enemy as a punishment or to instill fear and display power or mastery. This violence often occurs in the form of gang rape. War and conflict experts state that sexual violence can also be used as a war tactic to destabilize enemy communities by impregnating women. By raping and forcibly impregnating women, enemy camps attempt to change the dynamic of the society they are attacking by reducing the number of women who can or want to bear children following their rape. They try to prevent the growth of enemy societies while also changing the dynamics of families. Evidence of this form of war tactic is highlighted by heavily documented “rape camps” that were set up by Serbia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Women and girls in these camps reported repeated abuse until they were pregnant and imprisoned to prevent them from terminating their pregnancies. Camps like this are not typical, but the attempt to weaken communities through sexual violence is. In another instance in Nigeria, girls were kidnapped and raped by a local armed group that managed to escape and gave birth to their children. They faced scrutiny from their community; their communities believed that the children had “bad blood.”, which separated them from their community. One other important thing to note is that though sexual exploitation in areas of conflict typically happens to women and young girls, it can also happen to men and young boys to shame them and, as mentioned above, display power.
Forced marriage is another form of trafficking commonly occurring in conflict areas. These marriages happen without one or both partners’ consent, where the non-consenting partner is exploited. Women and girls are frequently the victims of forced marriages, where women are sexually exploited and expected to participate in housekeeping roles. Wives in many areas, particularly in an armed group, can represent power and rank. Brides are often given away as an incentive or prize for fighters. These “brides” are secured through force, deception, or exploitation of needs. Some in impoverished areas may sell their daughters to be married, believing there is no better option for them. Others do so in exchange for food, protection, or safe passage out of conflict.
Sometimes, selling daughters as “brides” is done for the daughter’s survival. A woman sold into forced marriage may have higher social standing and rights as a wife than a woman forced into the commercial sex industry. Feeling pressured to sell a daughter or have one taken from a family is a reality that no family should face.
What Can Be Done
Taking action against those in areas of conflict can be challenging. The weakened rule of law in conflict areas and an underdeveloped system for reporting international crimes have made justice hard to come by. One solution to this issue is encouraging international agencies to work more diligently to provide better protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people in conflict. Prompt and efficient assistance will help reduce the number of people that would be left vulnerable to traffickers who falsely promise to provide safe passage into other countries. Part of offering better protection would also mean creating better monitoring in areas where refugees are and making it easier for refugees to report any crimes.
Another solution is securing communities by providing basic food and water during or before the conflict. This is vital because the demand for food and clean water is increased when armed conflicts occur. The lack of basic needs makes communities vulnerable to traffickers eager to exploit. Working with locals to develop and strengthen their communities against trafficking will provide them with better stability in times of conflict.
Water pollution to freshwater sources caused by armed conflict leads to limited clean water for drinking, cooking, and other daily needs. These shortages and increased demand leave families vulnerable to traffickers. Armed groups will regulate access to food and water to maintain control over communities or regions. Humanitarian efforts in conflict areas are vital to the survival of innocent lives, though often difficult and dangerous.
Armed conflict is a challenging and nuanced topic with no easy answers. However, here at SOS, we believe that providing food and clean water to communities will develop communities and secure them from traffickers is a great place to make a difference. Conflicts are unpredictable, but starting with securing communities with basic needs will create a better structure for communities against escalating threats.