The sexual exploitation of women in conflict zones is frequently viewed as an inexorable byproduct of war. From Democratic Republic of Congo where rape has been used as a tactic to gain political control to the conflict in Bosnia where an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 women have been coerced into prostitution to meet the demands of allied troops and private military contractors, women are victimized with impunity by both opposing forces and those whose mission it is to protect the civilian population.
Legislation introduced by the Bush administration in 2002 promised to prosecute both government employees and military contractors who were involved in sex trafficking but so far the policy has resulted in zero prosecutions. Government agencies have claimed that obtaining evidence is difficult due to the limited resources available for investigation but human rights advocates believe that military law enforcement officials have neglected to follow up allegations despite substantial evidence uncovered by investigative journalists.
Some government investigators privately acknowledge that the distinction between voluntary prostitution and coerced sexual slavery makes it difficult to pursue and prosecute such cases. Yet regardless of whether a woman has been forced into sexual slavery or has turned to prostitution due to desperation, members of the armed forces and private military contractors are in a position of power that makes any transaction for commercial sex an act of exploitation.
The danger of organized prostitution rings makes life doubly oppressive for women and girls in Iraq and Afghanistan who are kept inside to avoid becoming prey to gangs. This has led to trafficking victims from as far away as the Philippines being imported to fill the gap in the sex trade. Many of the women are offered legitimate sounding jobs as beauticians or hotel staff only to find themselves threatened with violence if they do not comply with the traffickers demands. Brothels are often disguised as restaurants, hairdresser’s and even women’s shelters.
Some private military contractors have gone as far as charging prostitution services to their expenses under the guise of “moral welfare recreation” and due to their status as private employees they are seldom held accountable for misconduct. Many military officials refuse to address the problem of trafficking for fear of harming soldiers “morale” and as a result facilitate a brutal trade perpetuated by organized crime.
It is clear that legislation alone not a sufficient measure to seriously combat the problem of human trafficking and sexual slavery in conflict zones. Although the FBI has 35 to 40 agents assigned to war zones and military law enforcement has 150 agents assigned to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan the amount of time and manpower required to address the issue means that most cases will go unprosecuted. A special unit dedicated to combating the problem is yet to be established. Former Human Rights Watch investigator Martina Vandenberg stated, “Zero prosecutions suggest zero effort to enforce the law.”
For further information on how you can help see Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign and Free The Slaves, a movement inspired by abolitionist Kevin Bales book “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.”