Global data from the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) reveals that close to half of child trafficking cases begin with a family member.
In the Philippines, for example, sexual abusers primarily recruit children through their parents, relatives, and neighbours. The United States–based global nonprofit organisation International Justice Mission found that 70 percent of perpetrators are related to or live near their victims.
Often, the people involved in sex trafficking aren’t even aware of their role in a victim’s exploitation. Relatives and friends might unknowingly introduce the victim to a recruiter, broker, or pimp. Parents matchmaking their daughters may never guess that their girls would end up abused or exploited.
But tragically, more often than not, the people who make up the victim’s inner circle actively participate in the trafficking network. Desperate mothers sell their daughters off to roving recruiters, even as neighbours trick girls into accepting fraudulent job offers abroad.
For 30-year-old Pyone, a neighbour promised that she could get a good salary from working at a shop on the China–Myanmar border. The pressure of supporting her child and elderly parents drove her to seek out the offer, but when she arrived at the store, she was picked up on a motorbike and transported across the border to China, where she was sold to marry a Chinese man. Her husband’s relatives beat her when she tried to escape.
Boyfriends, whether recruiters or not, fake romantic relationships with the intention of trafficking girls. Studies in Vietnam have found that trafficked women are often thrust into the network by their lovers. Intimate partners play a strong role in trafficking for sexual exploitation: according to the CTDC, 98 percent of children recruited into trafficking by their lovers end up being sexually exploited. Almost all of them are female.
How can parents knowingly put their daughters in such danger?
While the desire for financial stability might compel parents from struggling families to offer their children to traffickers, this alone does not explain why children are trafficked.
Research has found that trafficked children typically come from families from lower social-economic classes or have family members who engage in drug abuse or illegal activity. These children are more likely to be abused or neglected at home, or pressurised to earn money for their families.
This is particularly true for daughters in more traditional communities, who are expected to support their families from a young age. In Thailand, for example, some parents encourage their daughters to enter prostitution to pay back “breast milk money.”
Children from broken or dysfunctional families are easy targets for traffickers, who befriend runaway or homeless children and influence them to work in the sex trade. Those who suffer sexual abuse at the hands of family members are also more likely to be sexually exploited by traffickers later.
In a bid to target children and their families in counter-trafficking efforts, countries in Asia have introduced community-level programmes that spread awareness on sex trafficking. These include videos and radio shows in local languages that remote tribes can better access, as well as outreach programmes by former sex workers. Nonprofit organisations have also introduced alternative income-generating and educational opportunities to prevent girls from getting lured by traffickers.