Story by Nicole File ’95, senior copy editor at CNN
“Human trafficking.” “Modern-day slavery.” The phrases conjure up images of dingy Asian brothels, or a line of young women forced across a border by gunpoint at night. Chances are, you don’t link those words to your clothes, your smartphone, your car or your lunch.
Yet, in the richest nation on earth, we have little chance of going through a day without using the services of a slave. And according to the best statistics available, most of those slaves are women and girls.
To be clear, slavery is not an undesirable or low-paying job. Most experts define a slave as a person forced to work, under physical threat, coercion or fraud, for no pay beyond what’s needed for them to survive. It can take the form of old-fashioned chattel slavery, as in the hereditary bondage still prevalent in Mauritania. Or it can be more subtle, as in farm workers in the U.S. who have been kept inside armed compounds, underpaid and charged extortionate prices for food, water and other necessities. “Ownership” may be asserted in the form of physical violence, the threat of violence to family members, or the threat of deportation or financial ruin if a worker walks away from an illegal “contract.”
Most slaves inside the U.S. are victims of forced prostitution, but at some level, slavery infects just about every category of product we use. In Congo, militants involved in a long-standing conflict force children and adults to mine the metals used in our most popular electronics. In Uzbekistan, a dictator who’s been known to boil his critics alive enslaves most of the population for part of every year to harvest cotton that makes its way into our clothes. In Brazil, slaves cut the wood and make the charcoal used to refine sugar and to produce iron that is used in many cars and buildings. Human Rights Watch and Free the Slaves both have published extensive reports on child slavery in gold and diamond mines. According to Bloomberg Business Week, fish that was sold in some major U.S. restaurants and stores was caught by slaves who were allegedly beaten, raped and even murdered. The U.S. State Department lists China-made Christmas ornaments as among the products most likely to be tainted by child slavery.
This should drive us crazy. Ask Americans what they appreciate most, and the majority will say “freedom to choose” or cite the ability to grow up to “be what you want to be.” Yet we’re told it’s impossible to determine whether a fellow human’s dreams and destiny have been thwarted to produce what we’re buying; or even to guarantee that a product we purchase did not result in the maiming or murder of a person. We have, in effect, conscripted ourselves as servants of those who profit directly from slavery. How dare anyone imply this is okay?
The good news is, women are not just victims and perpetrators of slavery — we are also the solution. In America, women make most household purchasing decisions, and our opinion factors heavily in most choices we don’t control outright. Our purchasing power influences everything from fashion trends to television programming. Female consumers historically have influenced trends toward more environmentally friendly products and away from products that rely on animal cruelty. We can have a huge influence on companies’ business decisions when it comes to slavery, too.
Our power isn’t limited to our dollars. Nurses and teachers are some of the most important front-line defenders against slavery inside the U.S., and both professions are still heavily staffed by women. Meanwhile, more women are joining professions that can directly influence trends in purchasing or enforcement — we are CEOs and CFOs, merchandise buyers, lawmakers, lawyers and law enforcement officers. And as students and alumnae of one of the country’s best women’s colleges, Sweet Briar students and graduates know better than most the role educating and empowering women can play in improving family lives and influencing societies for the better, both here and abroad.
Around the world, we’re waking up to the power and responsibility. In Kolkata earlier this year, I met women working for International Justice Mission who investigate and prosecute people who enslave others. I met women counseling, teaching, comforting and raising survivors of child sex trafficking. At one rescue home, I met an exquisite college student who was also visiting to work on a documentary about sex trafficking in India. She was using her access to a good education to help other girls who weren’t so lucky. On this trip to India with me were other women who had spent thousands of dollars and left behind families and jobs to spend a couple of weeks encouraging and educating those on the front lines of the fight. A gynecologist taught classes about female health and potential health problems arising from sex work. A retired teacher gave ideas about dealing with shy, angry or traumatized children, and fostering an atmosphere of passionate curiosity inside a classroom. Public relations experts helped build websites to get attention and money for worthy causes. Businesswomen advised on possible career paths for survivors now old enough, and strong enough, to support themselves.
For my own part, I’ve tried to educate myself and others in the many different aspects of this issue. I’ve been thrilled to help with CNN’s Freedom Project, an ongoing series of investigations into the many different aspects of this issue. CFP began as a yearlong initiative three years ago; the interest has been so intense and the real-world results so positive that coverage has been ramped up and is now a continuing part of CNN’s programming. For Freedom Project, I arranged a lengthy segment on child slavery in the cocoa industry, featuring the documentarian Roberto Romano and his film “The Dark Side of Chocolate.” Freedom Project also collaborated with actress and activist Demi Moore on the documentary “Nepal’s Stolen Children,” which focuses on the work of Maiti Nepal, an NGO that frees Nepalese girls and women trapped in the Indian sex trade.
For our documentary “The Fighters,” CNN spent two years with Filipina activist Cecilia Flores-Oebanda and legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao as they fought child sex trafficking. After “The Fighters” aired worldwide, the Philippines’ enormous Rizal High School — the largest in the world — started a youth-led organization to fight slavery. More than 5,000 students signed up in the first hour. The Philippines’ vice president Jejomar Binay also is using our documentary to educate law enforcement nationwide on what to look for; and the Department of Education is considering making “The Fighters” mandatory viewing for all secondary school students across the country. Additionally, more than a dozen U.S. universities have asked the film’s star, Flores-Oebanda, to speak to their students this year.
The best thing I’ve discovered is that while slavery is a very complex issue, that’s a huge opportunity for those of us fighting it. Like any complicated machine, just a few broken parts can really mess it up; so whatever your job or your cause is, chances are it can help eliminate slavery. Whether you campaign for clean water or against hunger, mentor children, fight for women’s rights, or support microfinance groups, congratulations: you’re an abolitionist. You don’t have to wear paper beads or flip-flops made of recycled tires, either. The abolitionist group Not for Sale has a great phone app that can help you see how brands score on human rights issues. Duchess Catherine of Cambridge, for example, has worn labels such as Beulah London and Stella McCartney, which support victims of sex trafficking and other forms of violence.
As women, we’re already driving the abolitionist movement, and plenty of opportunities exist for most of us to do even more. After several years of involvement with this issue, I’m more convinced than ever that slavery can become the historical wrongdoing many people already assume it is.