International Development Committee Review:

Secondary impact of COVID-19 on international development

Written Submission by International Justice Mission UK

October 2020


The COVID-19 crisis has left many already vulnerable communities at increased risk of violence and slavery. The UK Government must therefore seek to “Build Back Safer” from the pandemic by redoubling efforts and increasing resources to protect vulnerable communities in low- and middle-income countries.

The restrictions required to control the spread of the virus have unfortunately created the ideal conditions for an increase in modern slavery and violence against women and children. The World Bank estimates 49 million more people will be forced into extreme poverty this year[1], and unemployment has increased by around 25 million people globally.[2] Traffickers prey upon increased vulnerability caused by such financial hardship, making false offers of employment. Women and children in abusive homes are likely to have been exposed to increased violence, as was highlighted by various international agencies.[3]

The crisis has also hindered the ability of State authorities and NGOs to respond and bring protection to those who are suffering, including the 40 million people in modern slavery. [4] Now more than ever it is essential that local justice systems are equipped to protect survivors and hold perpetrators of violence to account.

Forced Labour and Sexual Exploitation

COVID-19 has affected tens of millions of low-income and migrant labourers. Many have been unable to return to their home countries or communities: according to IOM, as of June 2020, 40% of the 3,498 points of entry were fully closed and only 13% were fully operational.[5] Loss of income for migrant labourers is taking a significant toll on remittances to family members back home. According to the World Bank, remittance flows in 2020 to low- and middle-income countries are expected to drop by around 20% from 2019 and may drop as much as 35% by the end of 2020.[6]

The economic impact of the crisis means that many more workers have lost jobs and face great financial challenges. This creates greater vulnerability to exploitation for not only for the workers themselves, but also their families. There are reports of significant increases in child poverty in 2020,[7] creating additional pressure for children to work and increasing the risk of exploitation.

Financial hardship also increases the risk of sexual exploitation and the vulnerability of those working in the sex industry. Women who work in commercial sex establishments in red-light areas have had their income impacted and have little access to food and health supplies, creating a huge challenge for them to feed themselves and any dependents. These women also face deep social stigma that may prevent them from getting help. The crisis has brought about a shift in the nature of exploitation, with some commercial sexual exploitation moving online.

To protect low-income and migrant workers from trafficking and forced or bonded labour:








The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can take further action to tackle modern slavery:




Online Commercial Sexual Abuse of Children (OSEC)

The use of the internet to create, buy, sell, and live-stream child abuse material has exploded in recent years. An IJM analysis of OSEC in the Philippines found the estimated number/prevalence rate of IP addresses used for child sexual exploitation each year more than tripled between 2014 and 2017.[9] The UK is the third largest consumer of livestreamed abuse.[10] 

COVID-19 puts vulnerable children at increased risk. Child sex offenders are spending more time in lockdown and online, whilst vulnerable children are confined at home, often with their traffickers. The Internet Watch Foundation reported at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse during lockdown.[11] According to Europol, “[l]ivestreaming of child sexual abuse continues to increase, becoming even more popular than usual during the COVID-19 crisis, when travel restrictions prevented offenders from physically abusing children’.[12]

To protect children from OSEC:






Violence against women and children

Women and children are especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Connecting to the previous remarks, a recent study found 1 out of every 130 females is living in modern slavery.[13]

35% of women globally experience sexual violence,[14] and over a billion women lack protection from domestic violence.[15] COVID-19 lockdowns, joblessness, and quarantines have increased women’s vulnerability to domestic violence; reports of domestic violence have increased 20-40% in some countries.[16] Globally, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months.[17] An extra 4 million girls are at risk of early and enforced marriage because of school closings and increased poverty due to COVID-19.[18]

Researchers have placed the costs of intimate-partner violence at approximately 5.2% of global GDP.[19] Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child causes long-term mental health problems in both boys and girls and is a significant predictor of future violence: boys are 3-4 times more likely to become violent abusers, and girls to be victimised in adulthood.[20]

To protect women and children from violence:








Investing in justice systems that protect people from slavery and violence

An estimated 5 billion people live in a ‘justice gap’, unable to obtain justice for everyday problems, excluded from the opportunity the law provides, or living in extreme conditions of injustice.[21]

Without the rule of law, the effectiveness of international aid to alleviate poverty risks being diminished. Girls’ educational initiatives or attempts to raise awareness of modern slavery will be undermined if the justice system cannot protect them from abuse or exploitation. To achieve the SDGs by 2030, there must be an end to impunity so that both perpetrators and victims have confidence that there will be consequences for crime and violence.

IJM has consistently seen that when local law enforcement agencies are trained and equipped to proactively hold traffickers to account and protect survivors, the prevalence of exploitation falls dramatically, in some cases by as much as 86%.[22]

Listening to the voices of survivors in developing anti-violence projects and policies

Survivors are uniquely placed to understand the circumstances and systemic failings which led to their abuse. They must have the opportunity to meaningfully inform anti-violence interventions and programmes of support for survivors.

The Global Survivor Network (GSN) is a pioneering survivor-led network elevating the voices of those who have endured slavery and violence. The GSN will mobilise thousands of survivors and survivor groups to ensure their voices are heard in shaping development policy, programming, and decision-making.[23]

Jakelin (Guatemala): “my government – and every government – should seek the advice of women who have survived violence, inflicted either when they were children or adults. We can tell you what our needs are and identify strengths and weaknesses in the justice system, based on our personal experience with police, prosecutors and courts.”[24]

About International Justice Mission

IJM is a global organisation that protects people in poverty from violence. IJM partners with local authorities in 21 programme offices in 13 countries to combat slavery, violence against women and children, and police abuse of power. We work to rescue and restore victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and help strengthen public justice systems.  

IJM has spent over 20 years on the frontlines fighting some of the worst forms of violence. To date we have supported local authorities to help more than 53,000 people out of slavery and oppression.







[5] IOM Migration Data Portal.

[6] Covid-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens, 32 April, 2020. World Bank Group.














[19]This is 25 times the societal costs of deaths from homicides or civil war.


[21] Update_Feb2019_Final-updated_0.pdf



[24] Jakelin Mayen is on the Leadership Council of the Global Survivor Network (GSN), an international group of survivor leaders who want to see justice systems that protect the most vulnerable. Jakelin is a survivor of sexual violence, and she is passionate about helping other survivors find the courage to use their voice to fight for justice. She has advocated against violence against women and children in Guatemala.