Program on Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking


Program Goals

The program on child exploitation and human trafficking seeks to identify effective and sustainable strategies to address harm prevention for child and youth at risk of exploitation. In collaboration with partners in the anti-trafficking community, the program conducts thorough analyses of the root causes and risk factors for child exploitation and human trafficking. Our work critically evaluates existing policies as well as promising innovations that address these entrenched problems. Our goal is to conduct cutting-edge research for evidence-based policymaking, advocacy, and training for the next generation of leaders in the field.

Research Projects

We have several ongoing and past projects that examine these issues:

Understanding Prevention: Evidence-Based Cases for Prioritizing Protection

In the face of growing global evidence of an epidemic of violence and abuse against children, recent international fora have emphasized the urgency of a preventative approach to child harm. However, we still know very little about what preventing harm to children looks like in practice. Funders favor time-bound projects with visible outcomes, but prevention is a long-term process and the factors that lead to instances of child harm are complicated. There is little rigorous research in this area, in part because quantifying the counterfactual situation– the child that was never trafficked, or that married after, not before 18 – presents stark challenges for researchers.

In an effort to fill this research gap and following from our previous work on trafficking in India, Harvard FXB has been collaborating with two innovative nonprofits to document and evaluate their separate models of community-based preventative work in areas of high vulnerability for children. The project aims to draw out key lessons for governments, nonprofits and academics as to what targeted prevention projects for child protection entail, with a view to directing further resources and attention to such approaches. Published in spring 2019, the first of these evidence-based cases for prioritizing prevention studies the work of children’s rights nonprofit Aangan Trust in Konia, a peri-urban slum area in Varanasi, a large city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A brief overview of the report can be found here, along with links to the executive summary and the full report.

Tackling the Trafficking of Children for Forced Labor in India

In 2014-2015 Harvard FXB Center launched Is This Protection, a project designed to critically evaluate the Indian Government’s system for “rescue and reintegration” of the thousands of children trafficked every year for exploitative labor in the country. An analysis of the existing legal and policy framework was compared with the results of a detailed qualitative survey, conducted with 49 experts from government and civil society in the source state of Bihar, the transit state of Delhi and the destination state of Rajasthan.

The published report reveals startling inconsistencies between policy commitments and on-the-ground realities. Children are simply removed from workplaces and returned to where they came from, leaving them “exposed to the same structural vulnerabilities that led to their being originally trafficked, with the predictable outcome that many of them are retrafficked.”

Following the report’s release Harvard FXB held seminars in Delhi, Patna and Jaipur to convene prominent anti-trafficking experts from relevant government ministries, police, nonprofits and academia. The meetings disseminated the report’s findings and recommendations and fostered discussion and collaboration among key stakeholders, geared to improving current practice.

Evaluating Strategies for the Eradication of Forced and Bonded Labor

From 2011-2014, FXB conducted the first independent study to examine the impact of a multifaceted, community-based intervention on eradication of forced and bonded labor. The resulting report, When We Raise Our Voice: The Challenge of Eradicating Labor Exploitation, analyzes the efforts of Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS), a local Indian NGO dedicated to the elimination of exploitative labor practices within low caste, remote communities in Uttar Pradesh. The study sought to determine whether forced and bonded labor had been eradicated in target villages, and measure the effect the intervention had on a wide range of relevant social and economic factors.

The study clearly established that MSEMVS has had a dramatic impact on improving the lives of affected individuals and households, for example in reducing indebtedness, improving participation in government job programs and increasing community empowerment. However, results presented a nuanced and changing picture in relation to the exploitative labor conditions and challenging socioeconomic circumstances of the studied communities. For example, results were inconclusive on the impact of the program on child marriage and child labor incidence. The overall results are robust and encouraging, and they also point to several remaining methodological and substantive questions. More in depth research is required on the factors that contribute to community-based change in anti-exploitation programs.

Children on the Move Project

The term “trafficking” refers to a complex set of interrelated activities that encompass migration and exploitation. The Children on the Move project interrogates how this discrete legal category fails to encompass the diverse and intersecting realities of children who migrate and children who work, with a view to informing more effective and rights-respecting policy.


Photo: Angela Duger/Harvard FXB