A 15-YEAR-OLD Burmese girl named Aye was interviewed not long ago by antislavery activist Siddharth Kara. In all of his travels investigating global slavery, Kara writes in his 2010 exposé Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, “I experienced no emotion more devastating than peering into the eyes of an enslaved human child. Where one expects to see the spark of innocence, one discovers instead the abyss of humankind’s most savage cruelty.”
Kara met Aye at a shelter in rural Thailand. Hunched over, she spoke in barely a whisper. She had been enslaved for 10 years, since age 4, ever since she and her mother escaped from Burmese soldiers massacring her village. Her female Thai “owner” worked Aye in her food factory 18 hours a day, every day, and beat or stabbed her if she fell asleep. She had no bed to sleep in, often no food for two days at a time. After the owner knifed Aye in the head, nearly killing her, she ran away. She had not tried to escape before, because guards always caught runaways. The owner would pull out their fingernails or burn them with a torch.
“I wanted to call the police,” Aye said quietly, “but I did not know how to dial a telephone.” She found someone to help her and filed a police report. Taken to a hospital and then a shelter, she bravely pressed charges against her captors, who were jailed for six months. “I am afraid they will come after me.”
“I want to tell my life story,” Aye told Kara, “so they know what happens to people like me. I want other people who have suffered like me to know they are not alone.”
Not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but more than a million children like Aye, those who can still talk, could tell similar stories of torment and torture—some tales less horrific, others more—as sex or labor slaves or child soldiers (at least 300,000 child soldiers are fighting in more than a dozen countries). Enslavement of children and adults, mostly female, has spread to virtually every country in the world, with the number of host nations—slave states—doubling since 2001. While the Asian nations of China, India, Thailand, and Cambodia are the worst offenders (partly because of China’s draconian one-child rule, which has resulted in millions of girls aborted in utero or killed in early childhood), the United States also has been a leader of the pack. One estimate is that as many as 100,000 girls are trafficked as sex slaves within the U.S. (truck stops are the most lucrative 21st century brothels)—the land of the free whose (amended) Constitution prohibits slavery.
While millions of boys and young men are enslaved laborers, many by debt bondage (especially in India), global slavery is overwhelmingly a female holocaust driven by the profitability of forced prostitution—the most exploitative, painful, and dangerous type of labor, routinized rape. Beyond everyday sexual and physical assaults, many captive prostitutes are given a death sentence by HIV infection.
“More girls have been killed [by violence or neglect] in the last 50 years precisely because they were girls,” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn report in their acclaimed Half the Sky, “than men were killed in all the battles of the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”
WHAT IS THE responsibility of a great nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality—yet drenched for much of its history in the blood and tears of chattel slavery—to destroy once and for all the global holocaust of labor and sexual servitude? What is the moral mandate of a great, if imperfect, people who eventually vanquished their own slavery, to apply similar democratic and nonviolent tools to fight the modern slavery that has spread wildly with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the dominance of the globalized free market, and the entrenchment of desperate poverty? What is the responsibility of an American citizen, a global citizen, who can no longer tolerate the hollowness of easy human rights pledges while millions of children and women are raped and wrecked as disposable commodities?
A disturbing American paradox: With stepped-up monitoring, victim protection, and prosecution, since 2000 the U.S. has proved more proactive in combating global slavery than any other nation, though these are incremental and baby steps. At the same time, arguably, it also bears responsibility for intensifying the economic and social conditions that have helped fuel the slavery surge of the last quarter century, as the U.S. has pushed policies that have promoted chaotic capitalist growth while forcing austerity and slicing safety nets, thus generating impoverishment, mass migration, and other upheavals. Other U.S. policies hamper our ability to stop trafficking or help its victims. The meager federal resources spent on human trafficking ($60 million per year) are 333 times less than the $20 billion per year Washington has squandered on the drug war—it’s apparently all right to sell children, but not drugs. Visa and immigration rules make it onerous for victims to find refuge in the U.S.
Still, anti-trafficking policies led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and previously by the Bush administration) are to be commended, despite their faintheartedness. And a look at previous human rights struggles shows the importance of the work carried out by actors other than governments—by NGOs and other civil society organs. We need a globalized social movement that applies lessons from the Wilberforce-era British campaign against the slave trade, the U.S. abolitionist movement, and the more recent struggle for civil rights and blends these lessons with social media and global networking.
The historic black freedom struggles of the U.K. and U.S. teach us first that, though we need to set priorities, we must pursue a “do everything” policy. Any tactic helps, as long as it is nonviolent. In the late 1700s, English activist Thomas Clarkson journeyed by horseback thousands of miles around Britain collecting evidence and witnesses against slavery. Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” led thousands of U.S. slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists, white and black, rescued slaves in the North, sometimes out of courtrooms or jails, whose masters were empowered by fugitive slave laws to recapture them. We must respect and cooperate with each other’s methods, even if we think our own is more effective or urgent. We should lead by example, our successes persuading others to apply our methods along with their own.
These freedom struggles teach us that although government is a necessary ally, and ultimately indispensable, it is the mobilized powers of civil society—what I prefer to call grassroots democracy—that play the decisive role. The mobilizing of civil society often takes years, so patient persistence and self-care are essential. Grassroots education, journalism, literary and artistic expression, assembling and petitioning and protesting, religious appeals, creative civil disobedience, lawsuits and injunctions, building up safe sanctuaries, long-term nurturance of survivors, and their empowerment to lead as speakers, writers, and organizers backed up by a thick network of committed allies—activists must maximize these endeavors in order to propel legislative and judicial reforms.
At a time when American citizens are compelled by dire economic and political circumstances to rethink the role and purpose of government, we need to construct carefully the right balance and interaction between grassroots democracy and electoral-representative politics, giving neither more stress than it can handle, figuring out which tasks belong to civil society, which to government, and which they can do jointly with shared governance.
IN THESE EFFORTS, digital social media might sometimes be our friend. This may come as a surprise. After all, circumnavigating the globe, the Internet has emerged as the silently efficient 21st century counterpart of the transatlantic slave ship. Tech-savvy slave masters market young girls through websites such as Backpage.com and Eros.com. Techy traffickers and their electronic clients adore the cyberworld, writes antislavery activist Andrea Powell on The Huffington Post, “because rather than having to move girls around, risking arrest, they hide in hotels where their victims are out of sight and much less likely to try to run away.”
Yet the Internet and its social media have recently helped to rescue girls as well. For example, Powell also writes of how her organization, FAIR Fund (now called FAIR Girls), has deployed Facebook and Twitter to find, contact, and retrieve dozens of enslaved girls in the U.S., as in this exchange with a girl named Sara:
Sara: R u here? I’m coming now.
FAIR Fund: Go. Run. Take a cab to [deleted] hotel!
Sara: I can’t do this. He has my purse. He hid my shoes. He took all the money, I don’t have anything.
FAIR Fund: We’ll pay for the cab. Everything will be okay. Just come before he finds you.
Sara: I’m on my way!! Where are you?
FAIR Fund: We are waiting for you. We will run out and get you!
“My colleague and I raced to find her,” Powell reports. “One hour later, I was with Sara at the police station. She had nothing with her but the clothes on her back but she was finally free.”
Facebook and its kin can also help us to make global slavery a vivid felt reality for young people, especially college and high school students. One approach might be to ask youth and student groups of all kinds—civic, religious, sports, women’s, students of color, human rights, social justice—to commit to be sponsors or allies of young women (and men) who have survived servitude. Amnesty International rose to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s through person-to-person connections. Tens of thousands of people sponsored individual political prisoners whom they advocated for through letter-writing campaigns to government officials and sometimes corresponded with directly, offering long-distance companionship and moral support.
Today, with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, we are even better equipped to create personalized alliances with slavery survivors, not only to affirm them, but to mentor and nurture them, help meet their needs, and foster their education, health, well-being, and self-empowerment. Whether online or, preferably, face to face, we could also help them network and share resources with other survivors and allies and develop their leadership skills and ability to make positive choices.
In an email message, a courageous sex slavery survivor in California counsels that social media can be a mixed blessing. “Some survivors were recruited by traffickers/perpetrators online,” she writes, “and it’s very hard to authenticate identity.” She suggests that ultimately the most effective (and safe) support is given in person, especially “helping survivors create their own support communities with whatever people they want to have with them, so they then have a space to talk about all the stuff that comes up in building community (e.g., distrust, fear, abandonment, etc.).”
African Americans did not make irreversible progress toward freedom until they chose the risky path of direct action and resistance, supported by allies all over. Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old schoolgirl whose arrest helped spark the Montgomery bus boycott, expressed this ethic as well as anyone. “Our leaders is just we ourself,” she testified in the federal lawsuit that banned bus segregation in Alabama.
Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and head of the State Department office to combat human trafficking, concurs. He testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2010 that building an effective movement to abolish modern slavery requires enhancing the role of civil society to serve fully the needs of survivors. “We will draw on the courage, strength, and tenacity of trafficking survivors,” Ambassador CdeBaca stated, “to inspire our actions.”
We can help survivors prepare to fight slavery with whatever nonviolent means are at hand—aided by committed outsiders who take to heart Dr. King’s dictum that the most egregious evil is the silence of “good people.” What I’m suggesting is a campaign by people of all ages to support slavery survivors—both as a good in itself and as means to enhance their power and our own to abolish human slavery once and for all. In particular, if we can provide vehicles for people like Aye in Thailand to tell their stories widely to people of conscience around the world—to good people who find the courage to walk the talk—we will hopefully extinguish slavery in our lifetimes.
But if caring and conscientious people do nothing to stop this holocaust? Global slavery will not someday ride away on “wheels of inevitability,” in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words. Its profitability, like any capitalist enterprise, will keep it growing. If it isn’t already, you may find it plaguing your community. Further globalization and technological advances will only make slavery more entrenched and covert.
As civil rights leader Ella Baker telegraphed to her nationwide network half a century ago when black students sat in at segregated lunch counters, “It is time to move.”
Stewart Burns, head of civic engagement at Williams College and professor of community leadership at Antioch University, wrote the Wilbur Award-winning spiritual history of Martin Luther King Jr., To the Mountaintop .