Not for sale

Human trafficking is a $30bn a year global business. Now an influential group of women - politicians

A disturbing advert is currently running on Ukrainian television. It shows a girl in a blond wig - not unlike the one Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman - arriving on an airport conveyor belt, naked inside a cardboard box.

Her hand is stamped with a bar code. "Believe in your own strength. Don't take risks. Human beings are not goods," intones the voice-over.

The ad's soundtrack, "Not for Sale", is by Ruslana, one of the biggest names in post-Soviet pop music, Ukraine's winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest and a former MP. In the song, she urges Ukrainian girls to be suspicious of anyone offering them highly paid work abroad.

Now Ruslana's anti-trafficking message is going global. The Slavic songstress has attached herself to a women-only international task force: the Women Leaders' Council, a group made up of political figures, diplomats, business leaders, campaigners and celebrities from all over the world. On 3 June Suzanne Mubarak, first lady of Egypt, will represent the group at the UN General Assembly, where she will give an address on human trafficking.

This is a milestone: it is rare for anyone other than heads of state to speak to the assembly.

The women-only campaigning group came to prominence at a peculiar event in Vienna in February where Ruslana's booming soundtrack got its first international airing. Dressed in a red-and-black leather jumpsuit, waist-length hair flying, Ruslana launched into a spirited rendition in front of a select, enthusiastic audience of 30 of the world's most influential women.

This was the newly appointed Women Leaders' Council. They include the British actresses Julia Ormond and Emma Thompson, a two-times Oscar winner, and Barbara Prammer, president of Austria's lower house of parliament. Their common interest? "Human trafficking: a crime that shames us all", as the poster backdrop to Ruslana's performance put it. Her thumping, Anastacia-style ballad has now been adopted as the UN's anti-trafficking anthem.

The Vienna forum was hosted under the auspices of the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.Gift) and was designed to promote the efforts of the new women's council. Their leader is Baroness Goudie, the philanthropic powerhouse, member of the House of Lords and former campaign manager to Roy Hattersley, a formidable and indefatigable woman with an impressive track record on everything from sustainable peace in Northern Ireland to work as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund UK.

So why does human trafficking need an all-woman action committee of actresses, politicians and first ladies? "Men are involved," says Baroness Goudie, "but increasingly women are having to take the lead on human trafficking by taking this to Davos and the United Nations." It is not uniquely a women's issue, she explains, but there are parallels with the fight against domestic violence or bullying in the workplace. Arguably, women's voices can campaign most effectively on the matter - not least because the majority of those trafficked are female.

"Gender discrimination plays a role," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In some countries, the life of a woman or girl is not worth as much as the life of a man or boy, so females are more vulnerable to traffickers. The aims of the Women Leaders' Council are ambitious: to co-ordinate action across the globe, facilitate access to resources and reduce the stigma for victims.

The council's roll-call reads like a rather odd Who's Who of internationally influential women. There's Helen Bamber (a founding member of Amnesty International and founder of the Helen Bamber Foundation, the human rights charity, where Emma Thompson is also on the board), Jolanta Kwasniewski (the former first lady of Poland), Katie Ford (former chief executive of Ford Models), Renuka Chowdhury (India's minister for women and child development), Dr Saisuree Chutikul (a former cabinet minister of Thailand). The women's common goal is to establish an international code of "honourable and safe trafficking".

One of their biggest problems is that many traffickers masquerade as legitimate employment agencies. Victims willingly sign up to work abroad (often escaping desperate circumstances), only to find that a different fate awaits them. To increase prosecutions, the campaigners want to speed up cross-border collaboration. But in Europe alone, only 17 countries have signed and ratified the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Another 21 states (including the UK) have signed but have yet to ratify. Because trafficking is a cross-border business, it is vital to close these legal loopholes internationally. The job of these women is to push trafficking to the top of the agenda - and cut all the red tape.

It is a seemingly impossible undertaking, but Goudie is the figurehead for an increasingly vocal and influential organisation. The Women Leaders' Council's war against trafficking is already highly visible.

Along with Ruslana, the singer Ricky Martin has been co-opted into the campaign (although obviously, being a man, he can't join the council). Emma Thompson, the most high-profile council member, has reported on trafficking for Time, toured extensively with Journey, an anti-trafficking art installation, and appeared in a Body Shop video. Thompson describes the plight of the trafficked as "the hidden side of globalisation: a sickening business worth more than $30bn a year". (The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are roughly 2.5 million victims at any one time.) The new UN women's group hopes to broaden understanding of what human trafficking is - and to prick our global conscience by popularising the idea that human trafficking is a form of "modern slavery". Many are forced into slave labour, sometimes in domestic service or in factories, says Baroness Goudie. "Everybody thinks that human trafficking is just about women coming to the UK from Moldova or Albania via Amsterdam and brought into brothels," she notes. The problem is much broader: there are men forced to work in mines, on plantations or in sweatshops, as well as children coerced into becoming soldiers. This is no longer just about the sex industry.

Instead, human trafficking is increasingly a commercial problem, its proliferation encouraged by the speed of globalisation. Moving the focus away from the sex industry, UN.Gift is working on a number of initiatives to tackle human trafficking in different contexts: the use of children in armed conflicts in West and Central Africa, exploring the "power of the pulpit" to inform and warn about trafficking in faith-based communities, such as in South Africa, encouraging cross-national co-operation in the tourism industry in south-east Asia (where trafficked prostitution is a huge problem), working with "post-conflict" countries in the Horn of Africa where, amid the lawlessness and chaos postwar, trafficking often thrives, as it is easy to displace people without anyone noticing or being able to report it to the authorities.

There is also an increasing push to merge issues. Improved cross-border police co-operation, the rise of environmentally-aware consumerism and fair trade should all, in theory, work towards eliminating human trafficking. Likewise, a clampdown on fake designer goods would have a knock-on effect: many of the counterfeit products are made by displaced workers. Emma Thompson points out that we are all at risk of buying goods made by trafficked workers: "If we explain to our own kids how children are forced to work as slaves on cocoa plantations, for example, they will press us to buy Fairtrade chocolate." The identification of human trafficking as a consumer issue could be the key to awakening public outrage.

Baroness Goudie uses a chilling phrase that sums up the mentality behind human trafficking: "A drug can only be used once; a person can be used many times." In many countries it is still one of the crimes most difficult to detect and punish, making it less liable to prosecution than drug trafficking.

The 30-strong women’s council is in regular contact and hopes to meet as a group after Suzanne Mubarak’s UN address. Meanwhile, members are agitating in the private sector: they take the view that the issue needs glamour, celebrity and high-profile campaigning to keep up the pressure.

Melanne Verveer, a former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and member of the women’s council, puts it this way: “We need to elevate the race against human trafficking to the Grand Prix level, with Formula One-quality vehicles, sponsors and fuel. We simply can’t stay in the slow lane for another ten years.”