Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer

Purity, Victimhood and Agency: Fifteen years of the UN Trafficking Protocol

  • Marjan Wijers Independent


When the women’s movement reverted back to the nineteenth-century Victorian concept of ‘trafficking in women’ to address abuses of migrant women in the sex industry, it unwittingly adopted not only a highly morally biased concept—dividing women into innocent victims in need of rescue and guilty ones who can be abused with impunity—but also one with racist and nationalistic overtones. Despite efforts to counter these flaws, this inheritance continues to define the debate on trafficking today, exemplified by the distinction made by the United Nations Trafficking Protocol between so-called ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘labour exploitation’ and its focus on the aspects of recruitment and movement. As a result, its implementation in the last fifteen years has led to a range of oppressive measures against sex workers and migrants in the name of combating trafficking. The focus on the purity and victimhood of women, coupled with the protection of national borders, not only impedes any serious effort to address the exploitation of human beings under forced labour and slavery-like conditions, but actually causes harm. The call of the anti-trafficking movement for a human rights-based approach does not necessarily solve these fundamental problems, as it tends to restrict itself to protecting the rights of trafficked persons, while neglecting or even denying the human rights of sex workers and migrants.

Author Biography

Marjan Wijers, Independent

Marjan Wijers works as an independent researcher, consultant and trainer and has published on trafficking, sex work and human rights. She is co-founder of Rights4Change, which specialises in development and application of human rights impact assessment tools. She has worked at the Dutch Foundation against Trafficking in Women, the Clara Wichmann Institute, the Dutch Expert Centre on Women and Law, and the Verwey-Jonker Institute. She has wide experience in providing support to victims of trafficking, as well as in policy development and advocacy. She was actively involved in the NGO lobby around the UN Trafficking Protocol as part of the Human Rights Caucus, a coalition of anti-trafficking, human rights and sex workers rights organisations. She also was one of the organisers of the first European sex workers conference in Brussels in 2005. From 2003–2007 she was President of the Experts Group on Trafficking in Human Beings, established by the European Commission.

How to Cite
WIJERS, Marjan. Purity, Victimhood and Agency: Fifteen years of the UN Trafficking Protocol. Anti-Trafficking Review, [S.l.], n. 4, apr. 2015. ISSN 2287-0113. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 17 jan. 2018. doi:


Trafficking Protocol, sex workers’ rights, anti-trafficking, human rights, migrant women