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.
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.
"While guilt is a strong motivator, hope is more powerful. Active hope sets justice and love in motion because it contains a vision for something greater than the present," my sister Marissa wrote.
Active hope. One way that I fight human trafficking today is by sponsoring a girl in India through World Vision. By helping to provide Megana with an education, I'm ensuring that there's one less girl joining the line in the red-light district.
National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month is not important to me just because I once lived near a brothel. And it's not just my issue because I'm a woman. Human trafficking is everyone's issue. If you believe in the equal dignity and respect of all people, it's your issue, too.
No one needs to feel defeated in the face of injustice. As more organizations and individuals choose to get involved, hope is spreading.
The Dalit Freedom Network works to set up programs, schools, and child sponsorships for India's poorest; they represent Indian slaves internationally in Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations. International Justice Mission (IJM) provides the victims of slavery and sex trafficking with rescue and aftercare, prosecutes perpetrators, and promotes functioning public justice systems.
A recent surge of Christian recording artists voicing passion for the human rights include Phillip LaRue, who is working on a compilation CD on human trafficking in India. He writes on his MySpace page, "I believe fighting child prostitution has become my life long cause and passion … Whether I am on stage singing or just living life I want to devote my talents into growing awareness …" Heather Clark has spent the last three years recording an album on human trafficking and other human rights issues, with a traveling dance production to raise funds and awareness.
And five years ago, Natalie Grant, the 2006 Female Vocalist of the Year for the Gospel Music Association, founded the Home Foundation, which provides after-care homes and medicine for children and women coming out of prostitution. (For the estimated 100,000 trafficked victims identified in the United States per year, there are currently only 100 beds.) The Home Foundation's college internship program sets up opportunities to spend summers fighting human trafficking while based in Mumbai, Moldova, or Nashville.
Whether you are a college student, a stay-at-home mom, a working professional, a recording artist, or somewhere in between, you can respond with "active hope" to make a difference this month:
- Pray for both the victims and the perpetrators of trafficking and slavery.
- Read IJM President Gary Haugen's book Good News about Injustice.
- Donate money to a charity that fights human trafficking and slavery.
- Resist spending habits that inadvertently fuel slavery or trafficking.
- Write to U.S. government officials in support of the Child Protection Compact Act.
- Sponsor a child to help keep him or her in school instead of being trafficked/enslaved.
How else do you suggest we work to fight trafficking and slavery this month? Do you know of any artists, nonprofit organizations, churches, or other efforts dedicated to fighting human trafficking and slavery? I would love to hear.
Davita Maharaj is a Fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy in Royal Oak, Maryland, and is pursuing a master's degree in international human rights law at Oxford University. The top photo is of a Nepalese mother searching for her daughter, a victim of human trafficking, in Mumbai, India (U.S. State Department). The bottom photo is of a Bangladeshi 16-year-old holding a picture of herself before she was sold into sex trafficking.