When South Africa was selected to host the World Cup, there was much rejoicing and reflection on how far the country had come. From the days of apartheid where human beings were not treated as fully human, the country has worked hard at reconciliation. The world used to forbid South Africa from even participating in global sporting events like the Olympics because of apartheid, so certainly, hosting an event like this was a great symbolic act for the country. No one is naïve enough to assume that all is well in South Africa. Dire poverty and economic disparity still plague the country. Old resentments still surface, as forgiveness is not always easy. As with most countries, racial wounds do not heal quickly.
But amidst this celebration, it is troubling to hear one of the major stories coming out of the World Cup is the issue of all the sex slaves trafficked into the country for the event. While human trafficking is common for any major event like the World Cup or the Olympics, the problem is seemingly worse in a country like South Africa. The U.S. State Department considers South Africa to be a source of sexual slavery and forced labor, as well as a destination for human trafficking from other countries and a transit nation for the modern slave trade. South African human rights groups estimate that 38,000 children are trapped in the country's sex trade. While there have been disputed reports regarding how many people have been trafficked in for the games, the fact remains that it is occurring.
For games meant to symbolically celebrate a country's efforts to see all of its citizens as full human beings worthy of respect, the widespread presence of human trafficking simply undermines that message. But while the country might be responsible for not trying harder to prevent trafficking in their borders, the real problem comes from the tourists and fans that create the demand for sex slaves. When the world gathers to celebrate sport and national pride together and the result is thousands of women and children abused and oppressed, good sportsmanship is nonexistent.
So what causes a celebration of national identity and a love of sports to end up in the oppression and demeaning of women and children? Is it an expression of power? Misplaced masculinity? There's been much talk about what the governments did or did not do to prevent the trafficking, but why aren't we talking about how to get fans to stop raping children as part of their celebration?
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.