Stolen Smiles

Research conducted by Dr Cathy Zimmerman, a founding member of the Gender Health and Violence Centre (GHVC), put the physical and mental health of women trafficked for sexual exploitation firmly on the international agenda.

Between 2000 and 2003, Zimmerman conducted a qualitative study (link) on women’s health and trafficking in the European Union which highlights the health risks and impact on the victims.

The Health Risks and Consequences of Trafficking in Women and Adolescents


The study has made exceptional advances in shedding light on trafficking. It has:

  • generated the first-ever guidance for health providers caring for trafficking victims
  • resulted in the UK giving trafficked women a longer period to decide whether to cooperate with any criminal investigation against their traffickers, and police training on victim symptoms and interview timing to support recovery

Stolen Smiles was carried out between 2003 and 2005 and:

  • surveyed 207 women in seven European countries who had been trafficked into sex work or sexually abused as domestic labourers
  • was the first to use epidemiological methods to investigate the physical, sexual and mental health of trafficked women and adolescents


Stolen smiles


  • Trafficked women had high levels of injury, pain and sexually transmitted infections, for which they were often unable to seek treatment.
  • By far the greatest problem was mental health, with 58% of women showing symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder at 14 days after entry into post-trafficking services.
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety were in the 90th percentile compared to a general population of adult women who had not been trafficked.
  • For over 50% of trafficked women, these symptoms did not decrease significantly even 90 days after entering an assistance programme.

Based on this research, Zimmerman collaborated with Amnesty International UK to recommend that people who had been trafficked should be given a minimum 90-day period in which to decide whether to cooperate with any criminal investigation into their traffickers. This period would provide time for many women’s mental health to improve, enabling them to make more well-considered decisions.

While the UK Home Office stopped short of extending this period to 90 days, it increased the period from 30 to 45 days, exceeding the minimum required by the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking. This extension was influenced significantly by Zimmerman’s and Amnesty International UK’s advocacy.

Read an overview of our research in this field.

See a resource page with links to a range of papers and reports on our work.

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