Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Sex trafficking, victimisation and agency: The experiences of migrant women in Malaysia

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posted on 2021-12-08, 12:06 authored by Abdul Hamid, Haezreena Begum binti

Malaysia has criminalised sex work. However, its geographic location, porous borders and proximity to major trade and traffic routes have ensured a growth in sex trafficking activities. As a result, the ‘United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’ and the ‘United States Trafficking in Persons Report’ have categorised Malaysia as a destination, transit and source point for sex trafficking in Asia. In response to such categorisations, Malaysia has ratified the (Palermo) ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children’ and structured its anti-trafficking laws around prosecution, protection and prevention (referred to as the ‘3P’ policy).  This thesis shows that the enforcement of victim-protection policies is carried out in contradictory ways in Malaysia. Trafficked women are portrayed as victims in need of care and protection, but also as individuals who have violated immigration laws and engaged in ‘immoral’ acts. This results in state practices that (re)victimise women through policing, immigration and court processes which are often deeply stressful, traumatising and violent. Punitive practices – including ‘state and rescue’ operations and long-term detention – have been legitimised and branded as ‘victim protection’. In this context, the thesis argues that current policies and practices represent a continuing form of violence against migrant women in Malaysia.  Based on in-depth qualitative interviews, the thesis draws upon the stories of twenty-nine women who have been arrested and detained on the basis of their sex trafficked status as well as the perspectives of twelve anti-trafficking professionals involved in delivering the 3P policy. In doing so, the thesis shows how women are subject to prolonged victimisation at the hands of both traffickers and state authorities. However, it also provides an understanding of the ways in which ‘sex-trafficked’ women exercise courage, strength and resiliency in the face of the continuing harms against them. By demonstrating the nuances of agency throughout women’s migration experiences, the thesis challenges the stereotypical understanding of an ‘ideal’ victim of trafficking – commonly linked to images of passivity, weakness and worthiness.  By providing an insight into women’s experiences of sex-trafficking and state ‘protection’, the thesis develops a more nuanced account of agency. Thus, the thesis argues that the state’s prevention of sex-trafficking as well as the protection of trafficked women cannot be progressively advanced without a fuller appreciation of women’s dual ‘victim’ and ‘agent’ identities. The thesis explores the implications of these findings on developing ‘anti-sex trafficking’ policies towards women in Malaysia.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Stanley, Elizabeth; Jordan, Jan