Convention on Trafficking in Women and Girls 1910

May 3, 2022

Movie poster

May 4, 1910:
International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic 1910

This Convention (in French, the Convention internationale relative a la repression de la Traite des Blanches) was adopted at the Second International Conference on the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic (Conférence internationale pour la répression de la traite des blanches) in Paris on May 4, 1910.

This followed the first conference in Vienna on 5 – 7 October 1909.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Deuxieme_conference_internationale-631x1024.jpg

Measures

The Convention applies to any person who hires, abducts or entices a woman or a girl who is a minor, even when the various acts which together constitute the offence were committed in different countries.  It also applies even if the woman or girl gave her consent.

The Convention also applies to any person who by fraud or by the use of violence, threats, abuse of authority, or any other means of constraint, hires, abducts or entices a woman or a girl of full age, even when the various acts which together constitute the offence were committed in different countries.

A subsequent Protocol confirmed that that the words “a woman or a girl who is a minor, a woman or a girl of full age” in Articles 1 and 2 mean women or girls who are either above or below 20 yean of age. It also provides that a law may, however, establish a higher age for protection. As many of the participants at the conference were concerned that the authorities in some countries would adopt a higher age for their own citizens and a lower age for women and girls from their colonies or for foreign nationals, it expressly provides that this age must be the same age for women and girls of every nationality.

It also provides that for the punishment of the same offences, the law must provide, in all cases, for a sentence of imprisonment, without prejudice to any other main or accessory penalties.

The Protocol clarified that the retention, against her will, of a woman or girl in a house of ill repute could not, in spite of its gravity, be included in the Convention, because it is exclusively a question of domestic legislation. This is because it did not have an international element.

This was the second such convention. The first such convention was the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic 1904.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is traites_des_blanches-movie-poster-2.jpg
Movie poster

Background to the Convention

In 1880 it was discovered that about 50 minors from Belgium and other countries, mainly England, had been trafficked into servitude and forced to work in houses of ill repute in Brussels. The case became known as the Affaire de la traite des blanches (the white slave traffic case). It was triggered by the trafficking of Louisa Hennessey, a fatherless girl who worked as a domestic servant in London. She was misled by the traffickers with the promise of a more lucrative job as a receptionist in a hotel in France. The traffickers discovered that she was a virgin. But they still wished to use her. Fifteen people were convicted. The case became a major scandal when it was discovered that the real perpetrators were members of the Brussels police force. The mayor of Brussels and the chief of police were forced to resign.

By 1893 large numbers of women and girls had been trafficked across international frontiers. Women and girls were kidnapped. Sometimes they were trafficked with threats and violence, but often with promises of domestic work with a nice family or as a governess for the children of a good family. The traffic was often organised by international crime syndicates.

In 1924 an undercover US police officer visited Europe. When he visited Lisbon, an American woman told him that if she tried to escape, the owner would only have to inform the police, which would bring her back immediately:

“You don’t know Lisbon! A girl in a house here has a hard time to get away. If I had money enough to leave and she (the owner) wanted me to stay, all she would do is to tell one of the police and he would arrest me”. Source League of Nations Archives, Lisbon, 28‑29 January 1925, p. 10).

In Constantinople (known as Istanbul since 1930) in the Republic of Turkey, he discovered that the police themselves were the traffickers.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is traite_des-_blanches-movie-posters2-1.jpg
Movie poster

Women campaigners

The Affaire de la traite des blanches (the white slave traffic case) brought the plight of these young women and teenage girls to the attention of a wider public. The campaign spread to the United Kingdom in 1885, to the French Republic in 1902 and to the USA in 1907.

The International Congress on the white slave trade was held in London on 21 – 23 June 1899.

Women played a major role in the International Abolitionist Federation (Fédération abolitioniste internationale). This was founded in Liverpool in 1875. Women also played a very major role in the campaign against the trafficking of women and teenage girls. Women like Josephine Butler, who was the cousin of Lord Grey, the British Prime Minister, argued that the servitude of these women and teenage girls was no different from that of a slave.

Terminology

The term “white slave trade” and the equivalent French term “blanches” (whites) applied to the servitude of trafficked women and girls of any nationality. Indeed, many women and girls were from China and other parts of east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa or were indigenous females in the Americas. However, these terms were quite unsatisfactory as they implied a primary concern for white women. In 1921 these English and French terms were replaced with the more precise term “trafficking in women and girls”.

Explosion in trafficking in 1980s

The trafficking of women and girls increased dramatically after the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in eastern Europe in the 1980s. It was a lucrative business for international crime syndicates.


Trafficking in Ukraine

In 2022 the Society reported on a very dramatic upsurge in the trafficking of women and girls fleeing hostilities in Ukraine, who currently languish in this form of servitude as bonded agricultural laborers or bonded laborers in unlicensed or illegal houses of ill repute. According to the Society, both Interpol and the Commission of the European Union and its agencies have been slow to tackle this problem.

Source. Anti-Slavery Society, May 4, 2022