In the mid-1990s there was no clear definition of trafficking and the treatment meted out by the state and mainstream society to trafficked women was appalling. Rather than receiving assistance and support, the women were being treated as criminals for violating immigration laws and stigmatised by society for having worked in prostitution.

Two clear tasks were identified at the launch of the Alliance:

  • To work towards a clear and unambiguous understanding of trafficking that would inform legislation as well as social action;

  • To ensure that the human rights of trafficked women are protected by law.

The early years of GAATW were years of heady optimism. As Barbara Limanowska, who worked in the GAATW Secretariat in those early years recalls, “Everything looked so simple ten years ago!” It seemed logical that the combined efforts of so many people would go a long way in solving the problems, states would soon formulate adequate legislation on trafficking and NGOs trained in the human rights approach would complement the states.

A multi-country research study led to the conclusion that the issue of trafficking needed to be placed firmly within the context of globalisation, expansion of the informal economy, increase in female labour migration and existing inequalities of gender, race, class and nationalities. Human rights violations were found to be both the cause and consequence of trafficking.

A study of existing international conventions and treaties showed that possible measures for human rights protection of trafficked persons existed in many of those documents, although their implementation was a problem. Activities of the Alliance in the early years included organising human rights training workshops for NGO colleagues, putting together the Human Rights Standard for the Treatment of Trafficked Persons (HRS) and lobbying for an internationally recognised definition of trafficking. Complementing the training and advocacy efforts, feminist participatory action research projects were also carried out to ensure that members of the Alliance did not lose sight of the ground reality.