By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
More than 40 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016. This amazing figure comes from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation. This includes 25 million trapped in forced labor, many of them in debt bondage, working in farming, fishing and construction. About 15 million are in forced marriage and 5 million in sexual exploitation. Human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers. The most profitable is $100 billion from commercial sexual exploitation. We are talking big business.
In the year 2000, the US Congress mandated the State Department to put out an annual trafficking report. This report reviews world trafficking activity and includes victims’ stories, which show the ugly reality behind the numbers. The stories are shocking, heartbreaking and infuriating. Some examples:
• Maria Elena was 13 when a family acquaintance told her she could make 10 times as much money waiting tables in the US than she could in her Mexican village. She and several other girls were driven across the border. They continued the rest of the way on foot, traveling four days and nights through the desert into Texas, then to Florida. Finally, they arrived at a rundown trailer, where they were forced into prostitution.
• At a carpet factory in Nepal, Nayantara met a labor broker who promised a good job as a domestic worker in Lebanon. The broker persuaded her to take the job. Instead he took her to India, confiscated her passport and sold her to a brothel, where she was forced to have sex with at least 35 men each day.
Forced labor in a brothel
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tells a poignant story of Poonam Thapa, a teenage girl he met in Nepal. A woman offered a well-paying job to Poonam, who was poor and uneducated, telling her, “You can have a better life.” So Poonam, then age 12, ran off with the woman, who eventually deposited her in a brothel in Mumbai, India. The brothel owner, a woman, dressed her up in a skimpy dress, equipped her with falsies and gave her heels, Kristof reported. The owner sold Poonam’s virginity to an older man. Poonam thus became one of about 40 million people worldwide—a quarter of them children—subjected to forced labor. In the US, tens of thousands of children are trafficked into the sex trade each year. Some of the victims manage to escape and are traumatized and need serious rehabilitation.
Kristof and his wife, Sheryl Wundun, wrote a powerful book “Half the Sky,” promoting awareness of this shocking reality. The title comes from a Chinese proverb “women hold up half the sky.” The book also has a list of organizations where one can help. In our view, this problem is under-reported.
According to the 2017 trafficking report, the number of convictions is very low. In 2016, 15,000 were prosecuted and only 9,000 convicted. Recently, more attention has been paid to forced marriages resulting from abductions. Around the world, some 15 million people are living in marriages into which they were forced, including some who were abducted, according to the International Labor Organization.
Acute problem in China
In China, trafficking of women is particularly acute, in part because a preference for sons has left the country with a severely skewed sex ratio. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that by 2020, 30 million to 40 million Chinese men who will be unable to find wives in their own country. This is clearly a temptation for criminal activity.
Human trafficking is a global human-rights problem and a multi-billion-dollar industry trapping millions. It is a major moral challenge.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. Special thanks to Charlene Nicole Fulmore, assistant to Dr. Goodman.