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'I Lived Next Door to a Brothel'

Jan 21 2010
Guilt is a poor motivator for fighting slavery and sex trafficking. What my sister calls 'active hope' is much better.

Last week President Obama launched a nationwide human trafficking awareness campaign, proclaiming this month National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Leading up to this month, my sister, Marissa, and I began e-mailing back and forth about the injustice of slavery and human trafficking. "I can't help feel guilty—guilty of ignorance, lack of action, or the privilege and freedom into which we were born," she wrote.

I understood her sentiments. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I was volunteering at a school for slum children in Bangalore, India.

Shortly after my arrival, I discovered that I was living next door to a brothel.

My housemate and I decided to invite some of the girls over for dinner, hoping to hear their stories, but our invitation was turned down. We soon learned that the girls were not allowed to leave the premises for more than five minutes. Any errands lasting longer could result in a severe beating, or worse.

It seemed that all I could do was report the brothel to uninterested authorities.

Like Marissa, I felt guilty and defeated in the face of injustice.

Reports suggest that globally, there are more people living as slaves today than at any other time in history.

Unlike willful prostitution, modern-day slavery means having no control over your body. Your life is at someone else's command. You cannot control where you are taken or how many men will rape you per day. You cannot control whether or not you get free time, food or sleep, and whether you get to live or die. And there's often no escape.

India, the world's largest democracy, has the largest number of bonded slaves. At least 100 million people are involved in human trafficking in India, according to Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta (May 2009).

That's roughly a third of the population of the United States.

But India is not the only place where human trafficking is a problem. Modern-day slavery is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and the underground slave trade has flourished in one of the richest nations of the world: the United States.

Annually, between 14,500 and 17,500 slaves are trafficked into the U.S. alone, according to the Department of Justice. "These numbers do not reflect the estimated 100,000 minors that are trafficked within U.S. borders into prostitution, or the uncounted individuals that never receive services or law enforcement intervention," the Dalit Freedom Network reports.

Who answers for these minors? Who answers for the 1.2 million (approximately 40 percent) of India's prostitutes who are children? Each of them is fearfully and wonderfully made and was knit together in his or her mother's womb.

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'I Lived Next Door to a Brothel'