My job often makes me feel like I need statistics. I’m on the communications team at Love146. We want to make sure our supporters and the public understand trafficking is a problem. However, steadily over my 7 years with Love146, we’ve become more and more careful about statistics that are commonly used within the movement. Many have crumbled upon investigation.
Some common statistics become a game of telephone, with critical terms shifting as they are shared virally. Some common statistics we have literally no idea where they came from. All of this poses a real threat to the credibility of the anti-trafficking movement.
We’ve learned from experience about this troubling phenomenon. Here’s the story of one sad statistic:
More than 10 years ago we heard at a very reputable government space from a very reputable international NGO that “two children were trafficked every minute.” Heart breaking stuff. We put it on posters, banners, brochures, and prominently on our website. The prevalence of trafficking became increasingly evident through our programs and the many stories could not be ignored. So we continued sharing the stat, raising funds to do the work, telling the stories.
A few years ago, I decided to sniff around our statistics. This “two children per minute” stat I couldn’t seem to find a source for. I tried hard. Finally one day, I had a breakthrough. And it was really horrifying: That stat was just not true… and was the result of someone doing some really illogical math. Here’s what I found:
In 2002, the International Labour Organization published the report Every Child Counts: New Global Estimates on Child Labour. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
If you’ve ever heard “1.2 million children are trafficked,” this chart is where it comes from. But wait, look at the rest of that chart: “children in forced & bonded labour, 5.7 million,” “children in prostitution and pornography, 1.8 million…” — aren’t all the children on this chart victims of trafficking? How are they not included in that 1.2 million “trafficked children”? So that’s the first flaw: Conflicting definitions. For example, in the US the generally accepted definition of trafficking didn’t require victims being moved across national borders. That’s not true everywhere else, for example, the UK does require this movement across national borders. Therefore, Love146 staff in the UK and the US both have to be cognizant about what we mean when we use even basic terms like “child trafficking.”
Despite this possible confusion, let’s continue with the bad math: 1.2 million is a big number, so in order to make it easier to imagine, someone divided by minutes in the year:
It sounds good… but the problem is that this 1.2 million number also didn’t represent “new victims” annually, but just an estimated number of children affected at any given moment. So I guess if you could imagine the kids dispersed on one huge huge calendar, it might help you visualize? But if you, logically, think that number means “two NEW children BECOME trafficked every minute” — it’s just not true at all. The math is illogical – this is a sad sad stat.
We started using this stat more than 10 years ago, and it needs to to die today. If you’re using this stat and others like it, join us in becoming more careful.Compared to many human rights struggles, the effort to end trafficking is relatively young. There were few organizations that existed more than 20 years ago dedicated to this issue. But we’re a movement that is maturing, and that maturity should come with more responsibility. It is the credibility of the whole that is threatened when we aren’t diligent.
Our greatest responsibility is to the many victims of trafficking among us whose true experiences, unlike this statistic, should never be dismissed.
PS: While Love146 can’t mitigate the challenges associated with global statistics about the problem, we believe in evidence based work and are doing our part to collect data on the services we provide to those affected by trafficking.