By Luke Morales
Sex trafficking in Latin America has worked to emphasize the differences in gender while exploiting them for profit. This process has been enabled by a multitude of causes, and I will be examining specifically how a lack of gender awareness in Latin America propels patriarchal ideals currently in place, resulting in a never-ending cycle of exploitation of (mostly) women. Gender awareness is defined as the “ability to view society from the perspective of gender roles and understand how this has affected women’s needs in comparison to the needs of men” (European Institute for Gender Equality, n.d.). Keeping this definition in mind, I will also propose potential solutions to slow, and eventually end, the sex trade.
Eric L. Olson, an expert on security issues in Latin America, defined human trafficking as the second most serious organized criminal threat to Central America (Seelke, 2011). Latin America is a primary source region for people who are trafficked to the United States, and according to State Department estimates, as many as 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. each year (Seelke, 2011). Studies have found that human trafficking disproportionately affects women and girls, and of all those trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, 98% of them are female (Seelke, 2011). A lack of gender awareness in Latin America is to blame.
A factor that contributes to the thriving of the sex trade in Latin America is lingering machismo, leading to discrimination against women and girls (Seelke, 2011). Machismo is essentially a strong, exaggerated sense of masculine pride which often enables men to hold themselves on a pedestal above women for no other reason than producing a greater amount of a molecule called testosterone. Machismo results in a network of other factors, one of which being limited economic opportunities for women in Latin America. Women are often constricted to low-wage, informal sector jobs despite having achieved the same (or higher) educational levels as men in many countries (Seelke, 2011). It is this limited opportunity for women that creates risk factors pushing them to seek work abroad.
Because men see women as lesser-than, those who are freed of sex slavery are labeled as victims and denied agency. This allows governments to ignore the issues which led them to seek better working conditions in the first place (Batista, 2006) Additionally, many countries have few, if any, shelters for trafficked people and no follow-up plans to help them after they return from overseas to their former residences (Seelke, 2011). This proves it an issue being overlooked and even enabled by world governments. Though there are some countries pushing legislation to try to help trafficked people, feminist research argues that it is not realistic to expect women to benefit from any policy unless it is gender-aware (Bastia, 2006). However, due to the lack of gender awareness in Latin America, sex trafficking is a process which can be copied and pasted all over the Western Hemisphere, creating a patriarchal machine practically impossible to defeat. Men own the world, and with little being done to change it, the sex trade will continue to reinforce gender disparities. Gender, at this point and in this context, is more than a social construct: it is a socially constructed caste system.
A primary implication of the sex trade is the continued victimization of women while disregarding their exploitation at the hands of similar patriarchal systems. However, without recognizing the role that gender plays in sex trafficking, governments will forever be unable to destroy the operation. Proof of this lies in the fact that, despite receiving global interest, having a growing number of studies dedicated to this phenomenon, and increasing the number of programs for combating the sex trade, there is still very little change in the conditions that are conducive to trafficking (Bastia, 2006). Conditions that give way for sex trafficking include high demand for sex work, economic crisis in countries, and homelessness (Seelke, 2011). Additionally, though not as prevalent, disregarding the roles that gender plays in sex trafficking completely denies all men who have been trafficked the ability to be heard and taken seriously.
One solution, considering this perspective, involves shifting focus inward in relation to world governments and policies: are the policies in place effective? Are they made to help the at- risk groups—which, in this case, are women—or are they meant as placeholders to focus on matters deemed “more pressing”? Are there women providing input and making these decisions? Governments may also choose to analyze the factors which are responsible for creating the risks of sex trafficking. Homeless women, for example, are a highly vulnerable group worldwide. There is scarce research on the plight of homelessness among women in Latin America, and researching how to improve their well-being can promote healthier social and emotional developmental trajectories (Castaños-Cervantes & Aguilar-Villalobos, 2019). In 2019, Castaños- Cervantes and Aguilar-Villalobos examined 240 Mexican homeless girls ages 6-23 years old. They found that symptoms of depression and anxiety influence well-being, and that designing and implementing interventions that increase such well-being is possible, positively affecting social competence, assertiveness, and cognitions (Castaños-Cervantes & Aguilar-Villalobos, 2019). Though this study’s sample size was too small to generalize its results, it acts as a model and is critical when developing effective policies to address the subjective and mental well-being in homeless girls. It is ultimately gender-focused policies (at least, in the world’s current state) that take into consideration these factors which will eventually end sex trafficking.
Bastia, T. (2006). Stolen lives or lack of rights? Gender, migration and trafficking. Labour, Capital & Society, 39(2), 20–47.
Castaños-Cervantes, S., & Aguilar-Villalobos, J. (2019). How to improve the well-being of homeless girls: An exploratory study. Vulnerable Children & Youth Studies, 14(1), 63–75.
European Institute for Gender Equality. (n.d.). Gender awareness. https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1147
Seelke, C. R. (2011). Trafficking in persons in Latin America and the Caribbean. Journal of Current Issues in Crime, Law & Law Enforcement, 4(3), 351–370.