How violent extremist groups profit from the trafficking of girls

How violent extremist groups profit from the trafficking of girls
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As the world celebrates the power and potential of girls today, on the International Day of the Girl, we must also grapple with the significant obstacles that prevent girls from participating fully in society.

Girls are typically the first to drop out of school, more likely to go hungry when food is scarce, and face staggering rates of sexual violence. And in areas affected by conflict and terrorism — Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria and beyond — girls are at particular risk of enslavement, forced marriage, and exploitation. They represent three out of every four child victims of human trafficking, with extremist and armed groups increasingly targeting them.

A new Council on Foreign Relations report on the security implications of human trafficking outlines how trafficking can fuel conflict, drives displacement and undermines stability. 

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Armed and extremist groups use trafficking — including of girls — as a strategy to boost recruitment, generate revenue, and support operations. The Islamic State attracted thousands of male recruits by offering kidnapped women and girls as “wives,” and raised significant revenue through sex trafficking, sexual slavery, and extortion through ransom. 

The United Nations estimated that ransom payments extracted by the Islamic State amounted to between $35 million and $45 million in 2013 alone.

In ColombiaSri Lanka and Uganda, armed and terrorist groups have used girls as combatants, messengers, cooks, porters, and spies. In northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, the Islamist group Boko Haram abducts girls and women as a deliberate tactic to generate payments through ransom, exchange prisoners, or lure security forces to an ambush.

It has notoriously gone after schoolgirls as part of its campaign, kidnapping 276 female students from Chibok in Borno State in 2014 and generating an international outcry. Some of the kidnapped girls are then coerced into suicide attacks; in fact, one in three of Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers is a minor. 

In some cases, girls are lured rather than abducted by armed groups — a trend facilitated today by the broad reach of the internet and the ease of international travel. Extremists use social media to groom vulnerable teenagers and bait them into joining — a tactic with which the Islamic State is particularly savvy.

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With a successful social media campaign that emphasized religious obligation, sisterhood, and opportunities to enjoy freedom and adventure, the Islamic State lured record numbers of women and girls from the United States and across Europe — including many teenage girls who traveled on their own to help build the caliphate.  

For those girls who manage to escape areas affected by conflict or terrorism, many find that being displaced from their homes has devastating effects on their rights and opportunities. Girls are 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school in humanitarian contexts.

As refugees, girls remain at particular risk of sex trafficking and forced marriage, exacerbated by a breakdown of legal and social protection systems. Alarming upticks in child marriage have been documented in humanitarian emergencies around the world, as families force adolescent girls to marry early as a means of protection or as an economic safety net.

In refugee camps in Jordan, marriages for Syrian girls between the ages of 15 and 17 rose from 12 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2018. Yet, only 0.1 percent of emergency funding addresses violence against women and girls.

Too little has been done to address the vulnerabilities of girls in areas affected by conflict and terrorism — a gap that enables armed and extremist groups to take advantage of the strategic and financial benefits of human trafficking to expand their military and economic power.

Furthermore, ignoring the unique challenges girls face in conflict undermines government’s recovery efforts: child marriage, for example, costs the world trillions in lost productivity, according to the World Bank. 

To address this gap, governments ought to recognize human trafficking, sexual violence, and forced marriage as more than affronts to human rights and dignity, but also threats to international security.

They should investigate the criminal and extremist networks that perpetrate these crimes, and better train law enforcement to identify trafficking victims. Humanitarian responses should address human trafficking risks, while safeguarding girls’ equal access to education and health services. The U.S. government ought to lead by example by ensuring its migration and asylum policies better protect girls. 

Investing in girls is not just the right thing to do, it could also lead to a more secure and prosperous world — a lesson government worldwide should take to heart as they celebrate the power and potential of girls. 

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.