Ordinary people of goodwill, no matter their faith or creed, recognize human trafficking as a concrete manifestation of evil in our world. It is an ugly and lucrative business, with traffickers often using torture-like tactics to dehumanize the persons they treat as disposable commodities. It is a violation of human dignity, one in which certain human beings exploit others for profit or pleasure.
When stories of human trafficking or dramatic rescue operations come across our news feeds, we are understandably shocked. For a moment, our attention is grabbed and we feel genuine outrage toward the traffickers and, hopefully, compassion for the trafficked persons. But to what end?
Sadly, the underground and criminal nature of human trafficking helps to keep the stark realities out of sight and, consequently, out of the minds of most people. When we do think of human trafficking, it tends to be as something that happens “over there” or in seedy brothels. It is somehow easier to blame the bad actors, pimps, traffickers, and sweatshop managers rather than recognize the multiple ways that we are connected to human trafficking through our everyday actions. Because we are, in fact, connected. As Pope Francis observed in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone!”
Human trafficking is present in virtually every human community. Moreover, because the majority of people held in slavery today are forced to work in agriculture and mining, it is inevitable that products make it into the supply chain and our shopping carts. Sex trafficking also does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in a social context which tolerates, and even normalizes, sexual exploitation and the commodification of the human person.
In December, representatives of the world’s major religions gathered in Rome to sign a joint declaration against human trafficking. The faith leaders pledged to work to “eradicate modern slavery across the world by 2020 and for all time.” To be sure, this is a lofty and worthy goal. But it will take more than declarations, new laws, and rescue operations. Eradicating slavery will require concrete acts of resistance by ordinary persons and consumers.
Resistance might not be the word that comes to mind in response to human trafficking. Most often people speak of “combatting” or “fighting” human trafficking, particularly when it is approached as a crime. But when we consider human trafficking as social sin, one in which ordinary persons are complicit and connected, even if inadvertently, then resistance emerges as an appropriate moral response.
The first layer of resistance is to remove the blinders which keep the realities of human trafficking, and our connections to it, hidden. It is necessary to develop a critical consciousness for yourself, and then to attempt to raise the consciousness of others within your sphere of influence—friends, family, coworkers, and community members. Efforts such as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month can be key tools at this level.
A word of caution, however, is in order, because this first layer of resistance can easily lead to a dead end if it is not engaged with careful attention to the second layer of resistance—lamentation. This is because people are often overwhelmed both by the harsh realities of trafficking and their own connections. For example, the consumer—newly conscious of the ways she is connected to this social sin through purchases of products such as chocolate or consumer electronics—might easily become so overwhelmed that she cannot discern even the vague outline of a path for effective action. Yet, while it may not be possible to fully extract herself from supply chains tainted by forced labor, she can lament, mourn, and grieve these connections. Moreover, as the Psalms illustrate, lamentation can be powerful and transformative for the individual and the human community.
The final layer of resistance requires concrete actions to counteract the ways ordinary persons are connected to human trafficking. The critical consciousness and lamentation of the first two layers will inform these actions.
Human trafficking is not inevitable. It is possible for ordinary persons to resist:
- We can resist the normalization of sexual exploitation by challenging the use of sexist language or advertisements which use sex to sell products.
- We can resist the factors which make persons vulnerable to being trafficked, such as poverty or war, through advocacy or support of antipoverty efforts.
- We can resist the unjust webs of production and consumption which create a demand for human trafficking by buying less and purchasing fair trade products.
There is no one course of action which will end human trafficking. Yet, if we are truly outraged by this social sin, we must find ways to resist.
Sister Susan Rose Francois is a sister of St. Joseph of Peace. She has accompanied trafficking survivors and worked as an anti-trafficking educator and advocate.