Everyone has a story. Of being put to sex work from the age of 13. Or becoming a child soldier in Rwanda. Or breaking taboos by being an outspoken woman in Afghanistan. Or being a sex slave for Islamic State after watching your brothers being killed.
Despite the almost universal public silence around the issue of trafficking, the 650 women and men gathered for the two-day Trust Women conference in London organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation can talk of almost nothing else. They are policy-makers and NGOs, lawyers and CEOs, writers and survivors. And they talk of slavery as it shamefully exists in the 21st century.
Sold to a Mumbai brothel at 14, Nepal-born Sunita Dhanuwar talks of how her government didn’t want to take her back after she was rescued because it was scared that she might have HIV. Sunita wants financial compensation for all victims of trafficking. “It is not easy to go back home, but if you don’t have money, then it nearly impossible,” she says.
Interpol’s Michael Moran does not use the term “child pornography”. “A child does not consent,” he says. Some are so young that they haven’t started speaking. He calls it child abuse material and in 90% of cases, it’s the family that is involved. “When you find the victim, 90% of the time, you will find the perpetrator,” he says.
Pale and slight, Nadia Murad Basee Taha was 21 when Islamic State killed the men in her village and made her a sex slave for 12 different men until she escaped three months later. “I should be grateful that some of my brothers survived the genocide and I am today free,” she says. But 3,000 Yazidi women are still held captive by Islamic State fighters. As a UN goodwill ambassador she is their voice.
And, for many women and girl refugees, the threat of rape is so real that many take contraceptives but are still just desperate to leave, says Hillary Margolis, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Trafficking is the fastest growing black market industry in the world, worth an estimated $150 billion. It is aided by war, poverty and political instability that uprooted 65.3 million people worldwide last year. It is spurred by the rise of the Internet that has made the purchase of human beings easier. And it is encouraged by global supply chains that enable manufacturers to find cheap labour.
The Global Slavery Index estimates 45.8 million people globally are in some form of slavery. With 18 million people as slaves, India has the highest absolute numbers. They are found in the sex trade, in mining, as bonded labour, as domestic labour, in manufacturing, in fishing and agriculture. One-fourth of all trafficked people are children. UNICEF estimates 1.8 million children globally are trafficked into the sex trade every year – and this does not include cybersex trafficking.
So, what can we do as citizens? Plenty, it turns out. The first is don’t be complicit in the trade of humans. It’s impossible for us as consumers to tell if the products we use — t-shirts, mobile phones, coffee — are free of slave labour. But we can write to manufacturers. We can demand information. It will at the very least tell corporations that they’re under watch.
Second, lobby governments. In India we do not even have a comprehensive anti-trafficking law. At least three versions of a new draft Bill have been circulated and rejected by activists. A new version is now under discussion. Without going into its merits and demerits, the fact is that there simply hasn’t been enough debate or information in media. Are we informed enough?
Third, support those on the frontlines of the anti-slavery battle. Some work on rehabilitation and others on prevention — keeping children in school, for instance. All need your money and support.
But perhaps most crucially, we could just recognise the enormity of trafficking. The first step towards change is always awareness. And listening to stories can be a good place to start.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint