Why religious inequalities can lead to trafficking and forced labour

Published on 30 July 2021

On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, the IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) is sharing new evidence on how social, political and economic marginalisation as well as physical and psychological violence resulting from religious inequalities can feed directly into trafficking and forced labour.

According to the 2020 UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s  Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, nearly 50% of all detected trafficked persons around the world are women and, most victims globally are being trafficked for sexual exploitation, followed by forced labour.

Trafficking is often associated with human smuggling and organised crime. Two years ago, the trafficking of women from Pakistan sold as “brides” in China made newspaper headlines as some victims, who were from desperately poor families, escaped and returned with stories of abuse.

But a more insidious and invisible form of trafficking and exploitation in Pakistan, particularly of poor women from religious minority backgrounds, is also prevalent but under-reported. And it is underpinned by a legal system which is skewed against the victims in particular where trafficking is accompanied by forced conversion.

Trafficking and forced conversion in Pakistan: testimony from a young Hindu woman

Today, CREID is sharing the painful testimony of a young Hindu woman who was sold to three different Muslim households and coerced into converting to Islam.

Savita (not her real name) believed she and her brother were leaving her parents’ home to accompany a relative and work, cultivating pepper crops. However, her brother was sent back home whereas she was sold. Her traumatised testimony reveals how, over six months, she was made to work, coerced into conversion and marriage, and faced threats of violence to her family if she tried to leave. When Savita was finally able to contact her mother and escape, her captors filed a case against her mother, using the marriage certificate as proof that Savita was married and her mother had kidnapped her. They also brought a 6 year old child to court who claimed to be Savita’s daughter. Savita was lucky to be with the help of a local lawyer and an influential political activist, associated with a mainstream political party, who also got involved in her case and helped her. But many women in Savita’s position do not have the same luck.

In Pakistan, there are many pathways to forced conversion and the “free labour” associated with the presence of a new wife in the household, some involving violent abduction, others involving deliberate ideological sexual grooming. The “selling” and “buying” of young women from minority religious background into majority religion households is another example of this.

In all cases, women from religious minority backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to overlapping and intersecting inequalities resulting from discrimination on the basis of their religion, their gender and the socio-economic status. Forced conversion and coerced marriage presents an additional challenge when fighting their case in a legal system which discriminates against them, both as women and because of their religious minority status (see our paper on “Invisible Targets”).

Why humanitarian and development programme must take religious inequalities into account in order to “leave no one behind”

This situation points (again) to why there is a very real need to apply a lens that is sensitive to religious inequalities to any humanitarian and development policy and programming working with those on the margins of society particularly given how intersecting inequalities can result in both extreme marginalization, and an accompanying invisibility of these marginalized experiences. Understanding how deeply ingrained religious inequalities link to and sustain other inequalities (gender, disability, etc) and developing nuanced policies and programming to mitigate this is essential for all governments, institutions and organisations committed to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensuring “no one is left behind”.

Key contacts

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Emilie Wilson

Communications and Impact Officer


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