What is Slavery?


Every day, thousands become slaves for the first time.

A century and a half after the American Civil War, young women are bought and sold in Times Square as in Tirana, in San Francisco as in Thailand. They are bought and sold in almost every country in the world.

  • What is human trafficking?

    “Human traffickers” are modern-day slave traders. They buy and sell people, and frequently take them across international lines to make exploitation easier. It’s easier to make a girl a slave when nobody around her speaks her language, she’s far from home, and you’re the only one she knows.

    Traffickers sneak victims and victims-to-be across borders where there is no legal crossing. They also bribe border guards, find legal pretexts for travel, or use forged identification or papers drawn up by bribed embassy personnel to cross border checkpoints or board international flights. The girls being trafficked can be kept silent by threats against themselves or their families. Many are being trafficked into a life of sexual exploitation–forced prostitution–but they may not realize they’re headed for sex work, or they might not know they will be slaves. Sometimes they are coached to fear the border guards more than they do their own pimps.

  • How can someone be kept a slave in today’s world?

    Oftentimes, physical confinement is the rule: girls may be forced to live and eat where they work, and may be locked behind heavy security doors under the eyes of surveillance cameras and guards. Often, though, girls are coerced and confined by debt or perceived debt, by fraud, by threats of violence to themselves or their families, or by drug dependencies. They may be confined almost as thoroughly by an inability to communicate with anyone–being strangers surrounded by foreign tongues and culture–as they would be by cold iron bars. Fictional debt structures ensure that a woman who earns her pimp a small fortune every week will never pay her way to freedom. Are these fictions, threats, and isolation, used to force a woman to accept perpetual rape, any less terrible than mere physical confinement?

  • How many slaves are there?

    The US State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Report for 2007 acknowledges approximately 800,000 trafficking victims each year, worldwide. For reasons of nomenclature and politics, this figure only includes slaves who are sold across international borders. For a more comprehensive picture of slavery, in a field where it is notoriously difficult to get reliable data, the report cites a range of estimates from 4 million slaves worldwide at any time on the low end to 27 million on the high end. To give a sense of the scope of the problem, the UN’s Pino Arlacchi pointed out at the close of the 1990s that the decade had seen perhaps as many as 30 million women and children sold in Southeast Asia alone, or nearly three times as many slaves as were sold in the entire 400-year-history of the African slave trade.

    These numbers refer to slaves of all kinds. Of the 800,000 internationally trafficked slaves referred to in the TIP report, about 80% are women and up to 50% are underage. Whether the majority of slaves worldwide are primarily sex slaves or forced-labor slaves is an open question, and many slaves of both kinds are children.

  • How dangerous is it?

    It starts with kidnapping. Sometimes it’s kidnapping by brute force, and sometimes it’s kidnapping following a fraudulent job offer, and sometimes it’s kidnapping by a new boyfriend or a fiance or a friend-of-a-friend. A girl is smuggled to a foreign country where she wouldn’t know how to get help or speak the language even if she could escape her captors. Then she’s gang-raped and beaten until she learns to do what her captors tell her to do. It doesn’t take very long to make a girl a slave. Then she can be resold to a local pimp, or can be rented out by the people who trafficked her.

    Repeated rape, gang rape, beating, reproductive problems, STDs, lack of any medical treatment, malnutrition, kidnapping, confinement, and torture are only a few of the things that slaves suffer. A slave is disposable. Slaves are treated as such.

    Women are killed in this industry. If they contract disease, grow too old or too worn, or become pregnant or for any reason unprofitable, they may be discarded to fend for themselves in a foreign city. They are commonly resold to new brothels, and they are sometimes killed–as an example to other girls, or if they somehow become so uncooperative that beating and starvation and gang-rape fail to make them useful. Health problems and emotional scars that last a lifetime may encourage suicide even years down the line, and sexually transmitted diseases may kill quickly or may haunt an ex-slave’s long life, only to be passed on to her children.

  • Why does slavery exist?

    Scholars point to many causes of trafficking: lust and greed; the existence of poverty; globalization; or the divides between the rich and poor, the “Global North” and “Global South,” the First and Third World, or men and women. All of these pictures are both incomplete and overcomplicated. It is important to ask why, and to understand what makes trafficking possible and profitable. But at the end of the day, scholarship isn’t enough: these women are being stolen, confined, coerced, beaten, bought, sold, injected with drugs, starved, broken, raped, gang-raped, and murdered. Are we to spend our time only in wondering why?

  • 150 years ago, slavery was legal in the United States. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the story of a remarkable man facing the terrible reality of slavery, gave a tremendous fuel to the abolitionist movement in the time leading up to the civil war. River of Innocents is an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for today’s world: the story of a remarkable woman, Majlinda, as she’s pulled into the terrible reality of modern-day slavery.

    Majlinda–the heroine of River of Innocents–comes to remind us of all the slaves who still live and die today, of the millions who know what it is to be a slave. They live in cages built of our ignorance, maintained by our inaction, and paid for by our fellow human beings.

  • What can I do about slavery?

    The rules of polite society make sex slavery a difficult thing to speak of; we have an inner voice, an almost in-born hesitation, that tells us not to speak of it. It doesn’t fit in our polite conversations, it rarely finds a segue from our How-are-you’s, and we would rather speak to our friends of something joyful than of something sad.

    But sometimes speaking of a thing, admitting we have a problem, is the first step to finding a solution. If we let the world remain largely ignorant of slavery, if we don’t overcome our hesitation and speak of it with our friends and our co-workers, our families and our church groups, at our PTA meetings and even at our schools–if we don’t make sure we all know about slavery, and we don’t try to stop it, then it will continue as before in the recesses and shadows of the world, forever. It will lie forgotten on the shelf of your mind, with only you remembering, sometimes, what a terrible problem it is and how you read a book about it once, and shouldn’t somebody do something?

    Will you do your part? Here are links to some things you can do:

    • The single most important thing we can do to end slavery is to make sure we all know about it. Of course that’s not enough, but it’s a beginning; if we don’t all know about slavery, if we’re not even willing to talk about it, what chance do we have of stopping it? We have to talk about it, or it will continue to live in the recesses and shadows of the world, forever.

    • Read River of Innocents, and learn elsewhere about modern-day slavery. (A more detailed list of resources is forthcoming, though the list of institutions that fight slavery, and a few articles from the popular media, are available on the left.)

    • There are simple ways to fix that. Following the link above you’ll find easy ways to get modern-day slavery into the curriculum at your, your child’s, or your community’s schools.


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