Securing action to address the health needs of trafficked women

The School’s research has shone a spotlight on the physical and mental health of trafficked women and has been instrumental in changing the focus of policy-makers who largely saw trafficking as a law enforcement and immigration issue.

Millions of women are thought to be trafficked between and within countries around the world, including to the UK and the rest of Europe. Between 2000 and 2003 Cathy Zimmerman, Reader at the School, led a two-year qualitative study on women’s health and trafficking in the European Union to highlight the health risks and impact on the victims.

A second study, Stolen Smiles, carried out between 2003 and 2005, surveyed 207 women in seven European countries who had been trafficked into sex work or sexually abused as domestic labourers. The study, funded by the European Commission and the International Organization for Migration, was the first to use epidemiological methods to investigate the physical, sexual and mental health of trafficked women and adolescents.

The study found that these women had high levels of injury and pain, for which they were often unable to seek treatment. However, by far the greatest problem was mental health, with 58% of women showing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder at 14 days after entry into post-trafficking services. These symptom levels persisted for over half the women after 90 days in services.

Based on this research, Zimmerman collaborated with Amnesty International UK to recommend that people who had been trafficked should be given a minimum 90-day period in which to decide whether to cooperate with any criminal investigation into their traffickers. This period would provide time for many women’s mental health to improve, enabling them to make more well-considered decisions.

While the UK Home Office stopped short of extending this period to 90 days, it increased the period from 30 to 45 days, exceeding the minimum required by the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking. This extension was influenced significantly by Zimmerman’s and Amnesty International UK’s advocacy.

The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2006 and 2009 reports featured Zimmerman and her work, which was among very few studies referenced in these documents. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime anti-human trafficking manual has also drawn on Zimmerman’s work. Zimmerman also co-authored the WHO Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Interviewing Trafficked Women for the World Health Organization, which has been translated into eight languages. 

Zimmerman regularly conducts police training, advocating a victim-centred approach and delaying the timing of full interviews to give women time to recover and give more accurate testimony.