International Women’s Day offers a good opportunity to assess the extent to which gender considerations are integrated into the business and human rights (BHR) agenda. I take modern slavery, a popular BHR issue, as a site for this assessment, though there is hardly anything ‘modern’ about slavery or the current regulatory responses to it.

Like other human rights abuses, women are impacted differently than men by contemporary forms of slavery. For example, women trapped in slavery might face sexual violence, or the threat of sexual violence might be used against them to control their freedoms or confiscate their identity documents. Women and girls are also more likely to be forced into marriage or trafficked for sexual exploitation. Moreover, because of lower rates of literacy and patriarchal socio-cultural norms, women face additional barriers in trying to get out of the slavery trap and seek effective remedies.

Women are also disproportionately affected by contemporary forms of slavery, as they are made more vulnerable by patriarchal norms and discriminatory economic structures. It is estimated that women and girls account for 71 per cent of the estimated global number of more than 40 million people trapped in slavery. Women, who are over-represented in the informal sector and in supply chains of certain sectors, bear the brunt of exploitation in such settings.

However, the regulatory responses to slavery continue to be gender-blind. The anti-slavery legislation of the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia are a case in point. In essence, they require companies of certain size to report annually on due diligence steps taken by them to deal with slavery throughout their operations. Even if we leave aside the criticism often levelled against these laws for over-reliance on market forces to deal with very serious human rights violations, they do not even begin to think of differentiated context of slavery for women and girls. For example, in Section 54(5) of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, there is no reference to adopting gender-sensitive due diligence processes or collecting gender-disaggregated data. Nor is gender considered a relevant consideration in businesses training their staff about slavery and human trafficking.

The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 is no better when it comes to adopting a gender perspective to slavery. Section 16 of this Act requires that the modern slavery statement must describe not only the ‘the risks of modern slavery practices in the operations and supply chains of the reporting entity, and any entities that the reporting entity owns or controls’, but also ‘the actions taken by the reporting entity and any entity that the reporting entity owns or controls, to assess and address those risks, including due diligence and remediation processes’. Again, this provision does not consider the relevance of gender in identifying or remedying contemporary forms of slavery.

This gender-blindness of the current modern slavery laws must change. The 2.0 version of slavery laws should require businesses to (i) adopt a gender-sensitive approach to identify contemporary forms of slavery, (ii) take gender-responsive measures to prevent and mitigate slavery, and (iii) provide gender-transformative remedies whenever needed.

Businesses should conduct gender-sensitive human rights due diligence to find out the nature and extent of slavery in their supply chains. Collaboration and consultation with women’s organisations should help businesses in identifying hidden forms of slavery. They should also collect and disclose gender disaggregated data in their annual reports as well as in tracking progress in eradicating contemporary forms of slavery. A similar gender-sensitivity and gender-responsiveness is required on the part of state institutions with a mandate to deal with contemporary forms of slavery. Finally, both states and companies should be able to provide remedies to women and girls which are effective in taking them out of the slavery trap permanently.

Slavery is essentially about lack of autonomy and informed choices, something that women have experienced for long in both public and private spheres. Eradication of slavery would require addressing the root causes of slavery. And if these roots are grounded in discriminatory social, economic, political, cultural and religious norms and power structures, gender-blind anti-slavery laws will not be able to prevent contemporary forms of slavery from blossoming.

If the world community aims to see all human beings free from contemporary forms of slavery, the problem should be taken much more seriously by all stakeholders and dealt with holistically. States must go beyond merely requiring certain big companies to report annually about the steps taken to eradicate slavery in their supply chains: companies profiting from slavery should be held accountable, while those take sincere measures should be rewarded. Businesses must go beyond taking process-based measures, strengthen collective bargaining of workers and regard civil society (including women’s organisations) as their ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground in eradicating contemporary forms of slavery. Moreover, all of us should not ignore signs of slavery in our daily lives but stand up for the human rights of our fellow citizens, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day.


Surya Deva is Associate Professor, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong and Editor-in-Chief, Business and Human Rights Journal.

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