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Gender and different types of organized crime


Organized crime takes many forms and manifestations. What are the gender dimensions and considerations when it comes to some of the most commonly discussed forms of organized crime: drug trafficking, smuggling of migrants, and trafficking in persons? Can some of the lesser explored forms and manifestations of organized crime, such as trafficking in wildlife, cybercrime and trafficking in cultural property, have a gender dimension? In the following we consider how the use of a gender lens may help us better understand the gendered experiences of the men and women who are charged with these offences. 


Trafficking in persons

Trafficking in persons is primarily represented as a crime affecting women - specifically, young, foreign women. There is also a tendency to equate trafficking in persons with sex trafficking. A quick online search of the term will reveal thousands of webpages, movies, videos, books, and a vast body of official, grey and academic literature outlining examples of sexual exploitation endured by women and young girls.

And yet, as both informed consumers of information and organized crime enthusiasts we must be critical of these characterizations. First, we must identify how they characterize gender. Trafficking in persons does not only impact women. Furthermore, it involves a vast range of forms of exploitation, not only sexual exploitation. Many victims of trafficking are men working in industries other than sex, like agriculture or construction (Zhang, 2012). Recent data points to the fact that more than half of the victims of trafficking for forced labour are men, while most of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are females (UNODC (a), 2018). As for other forms of exploitation, trafficking for the removal of organs remains very limited in terms of numbers of detected victims. About 100 victims of trafficking for organ removal were detected and reported to UNODC during the 2014-2017 period. All of them were adults and two-thirds of them were men. While most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, this pattern is not consistent across all regions. Trafficking for forced labour is the most commonly detected form in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East, while in Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation are near-equally detected. An intersectional approach can guide us into uncovering how men and women encounter and deal with exploitative labour conditions, the kinds of labour that are more likely to lead to exploitation (UNODC (a), 2018).

Engaging critically with representations of crime can also help us see how they frame or stereotype men and women from other parts of the world. For example, there is an abundant number of reports on the cases involving women from the Global South who are victims of sex trafficking. While sex trafficking does impact men and women, stereotypes concerning women often depict them as sexually unrepressed and/or overtly sensual. They may also be characterized as naïve, unable to make their own decisions, or easy to trick. Nigerian women, for example, have often been the subject of reports and documentaries on sex trafficking in a way that portrays them as gullible, ignorant women who are under the control of their captors, who have cast spells on them (juju), resulting in the women being terrified of escaping situations of exploitation or abuse.

The experience of Nigerian women involved in sex work

Sine Plambech, a Danish researcher, has conducted extensive research among migrant women from Nigeria, documenting their experiences of migration and sex work. Plambech's work demonstrates that debt, family pressures, limited employment and educational opportunities, combined with the personal desire to travel to other destinations and/or countries rather than witchcraft, are behind Nigerian women's decisions to enter and remain in sex work (EASO, 2015).

Official figures also support the need to debunk stereotypes on the role of women in organized crime. An analysis of the sex of those reported to have been investigated or arrested, prosecuted, and/or convicted of trafficking in persons shows that most traffickers continue to be males. Nonetheless, in 2016, over 35 per cent of those prosecuted for trafficking in persons (of a total 6,370 people) and 38% of those convicted (of a total 1,565 people) were females.

Figure 15.1. Trafficking in persons, profile of offenders
Source: UNODC (a), 2018

According to available data on crime, female involvement in trafficking in persons is higher than for other types of crime (UNODC (a), 2018). Indeed, according to the United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2006-2009), the average share of reported female offenders for all types of crime is around twelve per cent (of convictions) (as cited in the UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2012).

For an in-depth analysis of the topic of trafficking in persons and gender, see Module 13 on Gender Dimension in Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons of the E4J University Module Series on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.


Smuggling of migrants

In contemporary narratives of migration, smugglers occupy a special place. They are often portrayed as black African, Muslim or Latin American men who exploit migrants' vulnerability. Media characterizations often singlehandedly blame them for the deaths and disappearances of migrants in transit, or for sexually assaulting women.

It is true that the majority of those prosecuted for migrant smuggling are men. In the United States, and according to figures from the US Sentencing Commission, men constitute about 70 percent of those convicted at the federal level for smuggling (US Sentencing Commission, 2017). This number alone, however, suggests the rest of those who are convicted - or approximately 30 percent - are women. A closer look at these figures also shows that most of those who are convicted for the crime are residents of the US-Mexico border area, where communities tend to have some of the highest levels of poverty in the United States.

When we disaggregate official data in terms of gender and place of residence we can obtain a richer picture of who the people behind smuggling are and the challenges they may face. Victoria Stone-Cadena and Soledad Alvarez-Velasco (2018), for example, have found that indigenous Quichua people from Ecuador are often among those working as smuggling facilitators. Their participation in the market is derived from a long history of migration: because of discrimination, many indigenous people were not allowed access to markets where they could sell and/or trade their goods; furthermore, they also had limited rights to the land. This increasingly led them to opt for migrating abroad - primarily to the United States -and in the process to become acquainted with smuggling routes and mechanisms.

Not only do we see in Ecuador a market where indigenous people - rather than transnational organized networks - facilitate and/or coordinate smuggling activities. We also find that smuggling is quite gendered: tasks are divided primarily along traditional gender lines. Women provide room and board for migrants in transit and care for those who become injured or sick during their journeys, while men guide groups across remote or isolated areas, watch over migrants and drive them across checkpoints (Sanchez 2016). Research conducted by DHIA - a human rights organization in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (2017) -, by the International Organization for Migration in Alexandria, Egypt (2015), and by Antje Missbach and Wayne Palmer in Indonesia (2016), have also identified how adolescent men are quite active in smuggling markets. While many of these young men become involved in the facilitation of smuggling to pay off their own migrant journeys, for many others participation in smuggling is a way to fulfil gender roles that they have not been able to exert, given the lack of occupational and educational options in their communities (Sanchez, 2018). Many of these young children report their participation in smuggling allows them to provide for their families financially and to be recognized as heads of the household and in the process, they gain access to social roles reserved primarily for men.

This division of tasks along gender roles also results in the fact that women are more likely to be convicted of smuggling friends and family members. Data from UNODC's SHERLOC knowledge management portal indicates smuggling cases with network-like operations are less common when compared against small-scale, individual efforts to facilitate the smuggling of migrants. While men are more likely to be involved in the first, women most often facilitate the smuggling of small numbers of migrants, including their own children and/or family members (Sanchez, 2018). In this context, it has to be remembered that the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol - one of the three Protocols supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the principal legally-binding instrument in this field - clearly identifies as a constituting element of the crime of migrant smuggling the obtaining, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit (see UNODC, 2017). As the Interpretative Note to this definition states, the reference to "a financial and other material benefit" was included "in order to emphasize that the intention was to include the activities of organized criminal groups acting for profit, but to exclude the activities of those who provided support to migrants for humanitarian reasons or based on close family ties. It was not the intention of the Protocol to criminalize the activities of family members or support groups such as religious or non-governmental organizations" (UNODC, 2006). Nonetheless, some States around the world have not included the "financial or other material benefit" element in their national legislation and prosecute men and women for smuggling also in those cases. In such circumstances, women can be charged with smuggling for providing room and board for their children, husbands or partners, or for assisting people with whom they have long-standing relationships leave countries afflicted by conflict or violence.

There is no statistical analysis on smuggling of the same extent than what we can access on trafficking in persons. Nonetheless, UNODC published in 2018 the first Global Study on Migrant Smuggling, which presents some estimates of the global number of migrant smuggled and offers some limited disaggregation of data by sex and age. The study shows that most smuggled migrants are relatively young men. That is not to say that women and children are not smuggled or do not engage in smuggling. On some routes, notably in parts of South-East Asia, women comprise large shares of smuggled migrants. Many smuggling flows also include some unaccompanied or separated children, who might be particularly vulnerable to deception and abuse by smugglers and others. Unaccompanied or separated children have been particularly detected along the Mediterranean routes to Europe and the land routes towards North America (UNODC (b), 2018). For an in-depth analysis of the topic of smuggling of migrants and gender, see Module 13 on Gender Dimension in Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons of the E4J University Module Series on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants.


Drug trafficking

"When most people picture the illicit drug trade - the traffickers, the gangs, the kingpins - they picture a world comprised of men. But drugs and drug-related crime affect women uniquely. Understanding how women fit into this dynamic is crucial to getting drug policy right," state Kasia Malinowska and Olga Rychkova in their study on the impact of drug policy on women (2015).

The narrative on drug trafficking tends to focus on the stories of high-profile drug traffickers and/or dealers. Indeed, some of those high-profile traffickers are women. Simultaneously, it is important to note that the economy of drug trafficking does not merely depend on the group's leadership. It in fact relies on vast amounts of physical labour, which is often performed by women and children. In some cases, women participate in the market having few other employment options in their communities.

The experience of "cocaleras" in Colombia

For instance, DeJusticia, a think tank in Colombia, has been working with "cocaleras" (i.e. women who pick coca leaves from which cocaine is extracted), to document their experiences. DeJusticia's research (2018) has shown that women's income from coca picking is among the lowest in the country, often not even surpassing the minimum wage. And yet, the women often invest in the construction of schools, fixing of rural roads, or securing water for their communities. Because of the war in Colombia, and the pervasiveness of sexism, the women also face discrimination and harassment. Many of them have been victims of interpersonal violence, sexual assault and other forms of gendered violence. These are topics that are not generally discussed in the way we talk about organized crime. To know more about the experience of "cocaleras", see the case study "The Place that Female Coca Growers Deserve" in the exercise section.

Around the world, the number of women becoming imprisoned because of their participation in drug trafficking is increasing. While we often glamorize or romanticize women's experiences in drug trafficking and tend to explain their involvement because of romantic relationships with men, the reasons to enter and remain in drug trafficking are quite complex. Not only are women more likely than men to have limited access to employment and educational opportunities. They are also more often among those facing financial precarity, in what we call the feminization of poverty (see definition in glossary). Furthermore, as we have seen earlier, the roles women most often perform tend to be low paying, high risk tasks that often make them also vulnerable to detection by law enforcement and in turn, to entering the criminal justice system.

As a result, while the absolute number of men in detention for drug trafficking is high, the proportion of people in prison for drug trafficking related convictions is higher among women.

The data from the UNODC 2018 World Drug Report highlights these trends (see Figure 15.2).

Figure 15.2. Men and women in prison for drug-related offences


Source: UNODC, 2018

Female incarceration in the Americas for drug-related offences

A report from the Organization of American States points to the fact that women in the Americas are being incarcerated for drug-related offences in alarming numbers, with the highest incarceration rates anywhere, along with Asia. While the number of men incarcerated is greater, incarceration of women is growing at a faster pace. In Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, more than 60 percent of women prisoners are behind bars for drug-related offences (OAS, 2016).

None of this is to suggest that the experiences of men do not matter, or that they do not involve risks for being involved in organized crime. As we have seen, men - particularly young people and adolescents from low-income sectors - tend to be among those that are disproportionally impacted by violence related to organized crime. They also tend to be the main target of state actions against crime, like policing and surveillance.

Analysing the death and disappearance of young men in Argentina

The work of Natalia Bermudez (2016) has shown how crime control efforts have impacted young men from working class sectors across Argentina. Each one of the deaths and disappearances of young working-class men involved in drug trafficking that Bermudez documented was indeed tied to their involvement in organized crime. Yet the violence that led to their deaths was not merely connected to fights among rival groups or organizations, but also to police responses. Many of the young men in her study had been killed by police forces. As Bermudez's work shows, policing and security also tend to have gendered implications. In sum, policing and criminalization often deepen the violence and segregation that affect the most economically impoverished sectors of society, where women and children are overrepresented. As Guerra states in his work on the involvement of young men on the US-Mexico border in drug trafficking, these impoverished communities have become organized crime's disposable actors (Guerra, 2015).


Wildlife trafficking

Despite anecdotal evidence that the roles of actors in the wildlife trade are highly gender differentiated, there appears to be very little attention paid to gender in research, policy and programming in relation to this crime. In particular, the gender of those who produce, trade and consume trafficked goods is hardly ever mentioned in the discussions on how to tackle the crime. A notable exception is Pamela McElwee's work (2012), which focused on the gender dimensions of wildlife crime in Vietnam and points at gender-based, social traditions and/or expectations that often prevent women from becoming involved in wildlife trafficking. According to McElwee, women - because of tradition or gendered roles - are often prevented from hunting or collecting specific animals or plants, unable to be away from their households for long periods of time, limiting their roles in wildlife trafficking, but creating spaces for men. McElwee also points out that religious beliefs may prevent women from being in contact with specific kinds of flora or fauna, and that some activities may be perceived as too dangerous for women to be part of and are therefore performed by men only. These observations, although relevant to understand interactions and dynamics in certain contexts, would hardly explain the entirety of the phenomenon. There are in fact various cases in which women have been charged with or found guilty of illegal wildlife trade. The most notable example is perhaps that of the "Ivory Queen".

The "Ivory Queen"

Yang Feng Glan (a.k.a. the "Ivory Queen"), an elderly Chinese woman, may not be most people's idea of the head of an ivory trafficking ring. Nonetheless, Tanzanian authorities arrested and charged her with leading one of Africa's biggest ivory smuggling rings, responsible for trafficking the tusks of more than 350 elephants worth 13 billion shillings ($5.6 million), illegally leaving Tanzania for Asia. Tanzania's National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit tracked her for more than a year, and she was arrested after a high-speed car chase in October 2015. She was charged with crimes spanning between 2000 and 2014 (BBC, 2016). In February 2019, a Tanzanian trial court found Yang Feng Glan guilty and sentenced her to 15 years in prison. She was convicted on the same charges as two other individuals thought to be key to the smuggling ring; all three defendants have lodged an appeal against the ruling (Tremblay, 2019).

For a report of the story of the "Ivory Queen", watch this video by ITV News Correspondent John Ray.

Another under-studied element of this form of illicit trade is its consumers. Women and men might purchase (illicit) wildlife products for different reasons. For instance, male consumers might believe that specific goods can improve their social reputation and prestige or enhance their sexual prowess (e.g. tiger bone in China) (Torres Cruz and McElwee, 2012). Some women might buy certain products because they are believed to improve both the quality and quantity of breastmilk in lactating mothers (e.g. pangolins scales). Both women and men might buy illicit wildlife products because of their alleged medicinal properties (e.g. rhino horn is believed to be especially efficacious for rheumatism), their religious significance (e.g. ivory in some cultures) or the status associated with a purchase (e.g. rhino horn is expensive, can be hard to find and it is considered a valuable gift by some) (USAID, 2017).

Counter-trafficking efforts that do not acknowledge gender dimensions, or that do not incorporate them into the understanding and development of strategies to fight the illegal trade are likely to fail. Most reporting on wildlife trafficking focuses on documenting the extent of trafficking and/or its economic value, but not the underlying reasons creating the demand for the goods or their social and cultural value. For more information on wildlife crime, see the E4J University Module Series on Wildlife, Forest and Fisheries Crime.



Technology, and the proliferation of Internet-based technologies and services has led to the emergence of new forms of crime. It is not uncommon to hear about people being scammed online, of hackers breaking through complex security systems, or of online sexual exploitation of children. Many trafficking and smuggling activities are also carried out online generating deep concern among the authorities. The cyberspace also hosted various forms of gender-based cybercrimes (e.g., image-based sexual abuse and sextortion), which are analysed in Module 12 of the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime.

There are several challenges to countering cybercrime, one being the very fact that it encompasses a vast range of criminal activities and actors, who by operating online are better able to conceal their identity (UNODC, 2017). Our knowledge concerning the people behind cybercrime and their gender is for this matter limited and often the results are mixed (see, for instance, Module 11 of the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime regarding gender in digital piracy). Despite its ubiquity in our everyday lives, cybercrime research is still scant, furthering our inability to understand how it really operates and its reach.

Despite some exceptions, women have not been at the core of most ethnographic and/or other forms of empirical research in the field. Those exceptions generally highlight that cybercrime is predominantly conducted by males (Hutchings, 2016). The scarcity of reliable data has not stopped the media from imagining the world of cybercriminals. Women tend to be characterized as beautiful, but socially-awkward computer experts, working in isolation, hidden in a world dominated by men, and attempting to counter the more radical and damaging forms of online crime (Potter 2016; Yver 2016; Rousseau 2017).

A not so-exciting explanation concerning the limitations on studies exploring the roles of women in cybercrime involves the fact that around the world, women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math related occupations (OUS/EA, 2017; Microsoft, 2018). As we have seen with other crimes, the lack of visibility of women in cybercrime may also be the result of patriarchal values that permeate all levels of society, including science and technology. The invisibility of women in cybercrime may not be merely the result of them being hidden, peripheral or rare, but rather the outcome of the gendered beliefs that have long kept women out of fields traditionally perceived as male. The lack of women in the field is also correlated to the fact that they are often the target of discrimination, sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Gender is perceived "more of an impediment than an advantage to career success" (Funk and Parker 2018).

Having this in mind, it should not come as a surprise that the available research on cybercrime captures primarily the experiences of men. Back, Soor and La Prade (2018) summarize the motivations of hackers as described in some of the ethnographic literature on cybercrime: the desire to show destructive behaviour to release their anger towards other online users or organizations, to show off their expertise in cyberspace and gain exposure, political goals, personal satisfaction and monetary gain. Cybercrime may in this sense allow men in cybercrime to fulfil 'gendered social hierarchies and expectations, but also [to] reproduce and reinforce them' (Miller and Lopez, 2015). For more information on cybercrime, see the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime.


Trafficking in cultural property

Despite the proliferation of international treaties and their increased endorsement by States, as well as reports suggesting that the illicit trade in cultural property has escalated, rather than diminished (see UN General Assembly Resolution 68/186 (2013); UN Security Council Resolutions 2199 (2015) and 2347 (2017)), empirical research and quality data in the field is scant.

It should not come as a surprise that considering this, research on the gendered dimensions of trafficking of cultural property is virtually non-existent. Yet some scholars have established connections between violent conflicts in trafficking-prone areas and the role of women in protecting the remains of the collective culture (de Vido, 2015). The damage and loss caused by armed conflict, however, are also followed by efforts from surviving or remaining residents to make a living. Research does indicate that the global escalation of this form of organized crime is tied to the breakdown of state-sponsored forms of security, the absence of which fosters the emergence of actors that may seek to benefit financially or in-kind from the sale of material heritage as a survival mechanism (Yates and Mackenzie, 2018). Some of the steps connected to this form of trafficking, however, do not have to be linked to organized crime. Instead, individual decisions that are entrepreneurial in nature and driven by need seems to be behind a significant portion of the trade (Yates, Mackenzie and Smith, 2017; Brodie, 2017).

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