Climate change is pushing women and girls into trafficking and modern slavery

Mamatha Raghuveer Achanta, an activist and lawyer, remembers the case of Susheela*, a farmer and a mother of two young children, from a village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. 

“Her crops had failed due to drought and heat, and the husband wasn’t well,” the activist, based in Hyderabad, the neighbouring state of Telangana, said. 

Both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are regularly affected by erratic rainfall, droughts and heatwaves. Such climate change events result in loss of livelihood and incomes, and lead to migration and displacement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in 2022. 

A fellow villager saw Susheela’s vulnerable situation and offered her a job in Hyderabad, home to close to 10 million people–twice the population of Australia’s Sydney. She left her family in the village and decided to move in search of a living. 

When Susheela reached Hyderabad, she was shocked to find that she’d been trafficked to a brothel. In an unfortunate series of events, shortly after her arrival at the brothel, there was a police crackdown. She was arrested on charges of prostitution and struggled for years to prove her innocence. 

Climate change is making women and children vulnerable to trafficking in various parts of the world. The World Bank estimates that 143 million people will be displaced and forced to migrate by 2050 due to climate change: 86 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 40 million in South Asia and 17 million in Latin America. Many among these will end up in vulnerable situations, where they will face “increased risks of human rights violations,” the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons noted in a report to the UN General Assembly in October 2022. Experts say women and children displaced because of climate change can end up in modern forms of slavery as well as trafficked into prostitution. 

People move because of slow onset disasters like droughts and rising sea levels as well as rapid onset disasters like cyclones, floods and hurricanes, noted Ritu Bharadwaj, Principal Scientist at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), who is attending the ongoing 27th UN Conference of Parties (COP) in Cairo, Egypt. She noted that for the first time, there is a Climate Mobility pavilion at the COP to discuss the impacts and future of migration. Bharadwaj and her colleagues from across the world will be sharing their findings on climate change, displacement and vulnerability to trafficking here.

Bharadwaj has researched and co-authored cases of climate change, migration and vulnerability to trafficking in Asia and Africa. She found that the trafficking of women and girls was rampant in most areas regardless of what the climate change-related event was. 

But in places facing slow-onset climate change disasters–such as droughts or sea level rise that aren’t always headline-grabbing and don't happen overnight–trafficking was significantly higher and was going unnoticed, she said. 

In one drought-affected district in Jharkhand in central India 42% of the migrant population was trafficked, in comparison it was around 16% in the neighbouring state of Odisha which was impacted by cyclones, she said. 

"I thought the data was wrong, and went back to the field to double check,” Bharadwaj remarked, explaining how shocked she was at the findings that places with slow onset events see twice the rates of trafficking when compared with rapid onset events. 

Raghuveer, founder of Tharuni, a nonprofit empowering women and girls, has helped hundreds of drought-affected women out of trafficking, said, “The vulnerability women and children face pushes them into the clutches of evil people. They are the first to be affected.” 

It is thus important to reduce that vulnerability, Bharadwaj pointed out. In her work, she has found social security support, protective schemes and help lines for migrant women and children to be effective.