Not yet abolished: slavery today

It is very easy for first-world women to be brave these days. Simply take a makeup free selfie or plan a solo trip overseas and your courage will be applauded. If you exist in the middle class of western civilization, any small departure from the norm is considered to be extraordinary.
Let’s put aside the underlying patriarchal assumptions that women need makeup to win the approval of others (it’s entirely their choice to wear it or not), or that women shouldn’t travel alone without a companion. If you can purchase lipstick and plane tickets, you are one of the richest people in the world. If you have the freedom to go where you want, you are one of the most privileged.

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Armenian woman put up for auction, 1915. New York Times via Wikimedia Commons

Almost 21 million people around the world today have been trafficked, according to World Vision. Forced labour, domestic servitude and sex slavery constitute the third-largest criminal activity in the world, after arms and drugs, with an annual profit of $USD150 billion. Within Australia, around 4,300 people are currently living in slavery, many of whom have been enticed here with the promise of paid work and a better life.
The incidence of trafficking in countries such as Thailand, India and Haiti is of course much higher. Natural disasters exacerbate the situation, and large numbers of displaced people are greatly at risk. Little help may be expected from police or government officials, many of whom are customers of the brothels who take money to turn a blind eye.
The situation is dire, but there are people willing to help. Brave people, like Vivienne*, a former police detective who has participated in many rescue operations undertaken by Operation Underground Railroad. She poses as a dumb tourist; her male colleagues pretend to be paedophiles. They say they are having a party, and want all the girls the traffickers can supply. Once rescued, the girls are taken to a refuge, where they receive physical and mental health care.

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Vivienne and fellow rescuer Pete. Image: Yahoo 7 Sunday Night

Women and children are usually trafficked for sex, but there has also been an increase in children trafficked to sham orphanages, to fill the demand from western tourists with good intentions, who want to visit an orphanage in a third world country. The ‘orphans’ frequently have living family members. Institutionalised care harms children’s development, and volunteers on short stays compound abandonment issues, according to advocacy group ReThink Orphanages
Vivienne, who spoke a recent Women’s Forum event, shared some of her experiences on rescue missions. Like any undercover mission, she needs to be able to keep her nerve. The operations can take up to a year to plan in advance, and according to the OUR website, are not always successful.
The market for children is partly made up of western tourists and employees of NGOs – the United Nations peacekeeping forces are among the worst offenders, with women and children in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Liberia and the Central African Republic raped and abused, then left to look after the children of rape, since the 1990s.
Human worth and dignity count for nothing in these situations – the traffickers see their victims as an easily profitable source of income, unlike drugs which need a constant fresh supply and can only be sold once. Although trafficking is different from people smuggling, displaced people on refugee trails are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and assault.

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‘children of Haiti’ (2010) Breezy Baldwin via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

According to Vivienne, women in these situations are far more concerned about survival that they are about equality. They simply want to stay alive and hope for freedom one day.
In February 2013, the Australian Government passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-Like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act, which expanded the definitions of servitude and coercion and added the offences of forced marriage and forced labour. There has also been a federal inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act. Writing in The Conversation, Fiona McGaughey, Dave Webb & Peta-Jane Hogg point out that longstanding criminal laws against trafficking and slavery have not prevented their occurrence, and any proposed solution to this problem must engage with government policies and practices affecting migration and migrant labour to reduce worker vulnerability.
Trafficking and slavery are the tragic outworking of a fundamental depravity of human nature – the desire to control others and profit from them, combined with an utter lack of empathy or compassion. I am not just describing the traffickers here, but also the ‘customers’ who are creating the demand and driving the trade.
It all comes down to how you view human life – a commodity or a precious creation of innate dignity.

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