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Who Are Slaves Today?

Who Are Slaves Today?

 Who Are Slaves Today?

JUST think of the numbers. It is estimated that between 200 and 250 million children under the age of 15 spend most of their waking hours at work. A quarter of a million children, some as young as seven, were drawn into armed combat during 1995 and 1996 alone, some of them thus becoming war slaves. The number of women and children sold as slaves each year is estimated to be more than a million.

But cold numbers cannot possibly reveal the desperation of these individuals. For example, in a northern African country, writer Elinor Burkett met Fatma, a young woman who managed to escape her cruel master. However, after speaking with her, Burkett realized that Fatma “will be a slave forever, in her own mind.” Can Fatma even dream of a better future? “She cannot project beyond the dawn,” says Burkett. “The future is one of the many abstract concepts she lacks.”

Yes, at this very moment, millions of our fellow humans are hopeless slaves. Why and how do all these people become slaves? Into what forms of slavery are they thrown?

Merchants of Flesh

The tourist brochure circulating in the United States could not be more straightforward: “Sex tours to Thailand. Real girls. Real sex. Real cheap. . . . Did you know you can actually buy a virgin girl for as little as $200?” What the brochure did not tell is that these “virgins” have likely been kidnapped or forcibly sold into brothels, where they average some 10 to 20 customers a day. If they do not provide sexual services, they are beaten. When a fire broke out in a brothel on Phuket Island, a resort in southern Thailand, five prostitutes burned to death. Why? Because their owners had chained them to their beds to keep them from escaping their bondage.

 Where do these young women come from? Reportedly, this sector of the sex industry is being filled by millions of girls and women around the world who have been kidnapped, coerced, and sold into prostitution. The international sex trade flourishes because of a combination of poverty in developing countries, affluence in wealthy countries, and laws that wink at international trafficking and indentured servitude.

Women’s organizations in Southeast Asia have estimated that from the mid-1970’s to the early 1990’s, 30 million women were sold worldwide. Traffickers in flesh scour train stations, poor villages, and urban streets looking for young girls and women who appear vulnerable. Usually the victims are uneducated, orphaned, abandoned, or destitute. They are given fraudulent promises of work, transported across borders, and then sold into brothels.

Since the breakup of the Communist bloc in 1991, a whole new population of impoverished girls and women has been created. Deregulation, privatization, and growing class inequality have resulted in increased crime, poverty, and unemployment. Many Russian and Eastern European women and girls have now become grist for the mill of international organized prostitution. “There are less risks when you traffic in human beings than when you traffic drugs,” said former European Justice Commissioner Anita Gradin.

Childhood Lost

In one small carpet factory in Asia, children as young as five are working from 4 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night without pay. In many cases child laborers like these face grave health hazards: unsafe machinery, long hours in a poorly lit and poorly ventilated environment, and  exposure to dangerous chemicals used in manufacturing. *

Why are children so keenly sought as laborers? Because child labor is cheap and because by nature children are docile, easy to discipline, and too frightened to complain. Their small physique and nimble fingers are seen by unscrupulous employers as assets for doing certain kinds of work, such as carpet weaving. Often such children are given jobs, while their parents sit at home, unemployed.

To add to their misery, domestic child workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse. Many children are kidnapped, held in remote camps, and chained at night to prevent their escape. By day, they may be put to work building roads and quarrying stone.

Another way that childhood is lost is through servile marriage. Anti-Slavery International explains a typical case: “A 12-year-old girl is told that her family has arranged her marriage to a 60-year-old man. Ostensibly she has the right to refuse, but in practice she has no opportunity to exercise that right and is unaware that she can do so.”

Slaves of Debt

Hundreds of thousands of laborers are held in bondage to their employers and places of employment because of loans that they or their parents have been given. Traditionally, bonded labor occurs mainly in agricultural areas, where laborers work as general servants or as farmers. In some cases, debts are passed on from one generation to the next, ensuring that members of a family remain in permanent bondage. In other cases, employers who are owed money sell the debt to a new employer. In extreme cases, bonded laborers receive no payment at all for the work they do. Or they may be bound by relatively small advances on their wages, which are endlessly repeated, so that they become bonded to their employer.

Ritual Slavery

Binti, from West Africa, is 12 years old and is one of thousands of girls who serve as trocosi, meaning in the Ewe language “slaves of the gods.” She has been forced into a life of slavery and  redemption for a crime she did not commit—the rape that led to her own birth! Presently her responsibilities are limited to household chores for a local fetish priest. Later Binti’s duties will broaden to include providing sexual services to the priest, who is her owner. Then by middle age Binti will be replaced—the priest will find other appealing girls to serve him as trocosi.

Like Binti, thousands who are victims of ritual slavery are offered by their families to work as virtual slaves in an effort to atone for an act interpreted as a sin or an offense against holy decree. In several parts of the world, girls or women are obliged to perform religious duties and to provide sexual services to priests or others—on the pretext that such women are married to a deity. In many cases the women perform other unpaid services. They are not free to change their place of residence or work and often remain in servitude for many years.

Traditional Chattel Slavery

Although most countries claim to have legally abolished slavery, in some areas there has been a recent resurgence of traditional chattel slavery. This usually takes place in regions torn by civil strife or armed conflict. “In the areas of conflict the rule of law has effectively been suspended,” reports Anti-Slavery International, “and soldiers or armed militia are able to force people to work for them unpaid . . . without fear of retribution; such practices have been reported chiefly in areas controlled by armed groups which have not achieved international recognition.” However, according to the same organization, “there have also been recent reports of government soldiers forcing civilians to work as slaves, outside any legal framework. Soldiers and militias have also been reported to engage in the slave trade, selling those they have captured to work for others.”

Sadly, the curse of slavery still haunts humanity in many forms and disguises. Stop and think again of the numbers involved—the millions of people suffering as slaves around the globe. Then think of one or two of the modern slaves whose stories you read in these pages—perhaps Lin-Lin or Binti. Do you want to see the crime of modern slavery stopped? Will the abolition of slavery ever become a reality? Before this can occur, radical changes have to take place. Please read about them in the following article.


^ par. 11 See “Child Labor—Its End in Sight!” in the May 22, 1999, issue of Awake!

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Various official agencies, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Labor Organization, are diligently instituting and implementing strategies for the elimination of modern slavery. In addition, a host of nongovernmental organizations, such as Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch, have put forth an effort to increase public awareness of modern slavery and to emancipate its victims. Some of these organizations are pursuing the introduction of special labels that would indicate that items are produced without slave or child labor. So that people engaging in sex with children can be prosecuted upon their return to their home country, other agencies are calling for legislation in countries where “sex tours” originate. Some human rights activists have gone so far as to pay slave traders and masters large sums of money in order to redeem as many slaves as they can. This has caused some controversy, since such practices may create a lucrative market for slaves and inflate their price.

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Many young girls are forced into marriage

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Food line for bonded slaves

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Ricardo Funari

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Sometimes young children are forced into military service

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