There is a paucity of research regarding traffickers more generally which is more acute when considering women’s involvement in this crime. In the dominant representation of human trafficking, women are most frequently constructed as victims at the mercy of men stereotypically framed as evil, deviants heavily involved in organised crime. In this context, women are seen as incongruous as trafficking perpetrators in the criminal justice system.
This blog post and article are based on my doctoral research in which I analysed data regarding offenders convicted for trafficking offences in the UK, as well as carried out interviews with criminal justice professionals involved in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offences. This research, along with evidence from theUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, indicates that women make up a significant proportion of trafficking prosecutions. The issue of women trafficking other women has also been identified as a problem by the media. In the following, I outline three themes relating to women’s involvement in trafficking, suggesting that there’s a need to better understand their participation in this activity and how law enforcement and criminal justice systems respond to trafficking.
1. Women often undertake lower ranking roles in trafficking activity such as ‘minding’ the victims or transporting them from one place to another. Performing these roles increases their contact with the victims and therefore their chances of identification by law enforcement. The data indicated that in the UK, a greater proportion of women were convicted for arranging or facilitating offences than men: 69% of male traffickers compared with 78% of female traffickers were convicted for arranging or facilitating offences.
2. Criminal justice narratives of female traffickers also indicate that trafficked victims sometimes resort to perpetration of trafficking offences as a way out of their own exploitation. In my research, prosecutors acknowledged the difficulty of managing this within the constraints of legal processes in the UK, as illustrated by this quote:
As time goes on, some of the women turn and they actually become like a trusted person and they become almost a trafficker themselves…it’s difficult to work out in some of these cases as, if they are traffickers then they’ve got there through being victims. (Prosecutor)
EU obligations provide states with the option of not imposing penalties on victims of trafficking for their unlawful behaviour to the extent that they’ve been compelled to do so. However, this doesn’t offer blanket immunity from prosecution for trafficked victims (see, for example, the case of R v LM). Criminal justice professionals interviewed for this study therefore acknowledged the difficulty of working with these cases in deciding whether it’s in the public interest to prosecute.
3. Female traffickers’ pathways into offending are facilitated by their intimate relationships with male co-defendants. This has also been recognised as a feature of smuggling. With the data informing this research, 74% of convicted traffickers offended with their intimate partner in the commission of the offence. This was paralleled with evidence of domestic abuse in their relationships; almost half of the female traffickers were categorised in the criminal justice data as victims of domestic abuse in their relationships. Criminal justice narratives in my research identified the operation of gendered power dynamics which may have contributed to women’s involvement in these offences but it was difficult to clearly establish the extent to which they had been coerced into the activity. The following quote illustrates some of the complex power dynamics that can be involved in a network of co-defendants:
… clearly the men were the leaders and the women defendants were expected to follow… She is expected to follow her partner’s instructions… [the defendant] claimed that the male trafficker was violent towards her, she’s been there against her will but had been too scared to do anything about it but there was no evidence to prove this. (Prosecutor).
Female offenders are frequently perceived as ‘doubly deviant.’ In the context of trafficking, the exploitative nature of the offending amplifies the judgement of deviance: women committing trafficking offences are viewed as transgressing fundamental norms of gender role behaviour as well as the law. Although female traffickers’ backgrounds and experiences were acknowledged in criminal justice narratives, they often became secondary to the discourses of perpetration and the prioritisation of punishment. In responding to the narrow events of the trafficking offence, wider issues of migration, exploitation, and the restrictive framework of decision making are neglected.
As acknowledged in the UK’s Modern Slavery Strategy, there remains a need to develop knowledge and improve understanding of traffickers’ backgrounds and motivations. In the context of the current research and the new legislative framework, this is particularly pertinent in relation to identifying the complex factors that contribute to women’s pathways into trafficking and how the criminal justice system can better respond to these women.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Broad, R. (2015) Female Traffickers and Criminal Justice Responses. Available at:/ (Accessed [date]).