Hannah More. Olaudah Equiano. William Wilberforce. One an heiress and accomplished playwright. One a former slave. And one a member of Parliament. These three and their circle of friends, notably a group called the Clapham Sect, came together and used moral suasion and political influence to move a nation to act against its own economic interest to abolish, first the slave trade and then slavery in Great Britain and the British colonies.
I’d been reading a collection of short biographies titled Mere Believers by Marc Baer and had just read about these three when I had a meeting with two men seeking to be modern-day abolitionists in the former eastern bloc country of Moldova. Much of their work consists of social entrepreneurship that creates jobs and economic opportunity to enable those who are victims of sex and labor trafficking in their country make a new start in life. The struggling economy of Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, makes it a target for traffickers, who often lure women out of the country with promises of jobs only to force them into the sex trades.
It reminded me again of the ugly truth that there are more people in some form of involuntary servitude today than at the height of the slave trade — 27 million by some estimates with up to 13 million being children. Estimates are that this is at least a $32 billion industry world-wide, third in illegal activities only to drugs and arms trading. What is particularly sobering is that this is illegal activity, although because of the lucrative economics, law enforcement officials often are complicit in allowing this activity to continue in many countries. This includes forced prostitution of women and children, child pornography, and forced labor.
This even occurs in the heart of middle America. In January, we learned of arrests of traffickers in my community who were detaining at least 7 women who were forced to engage in prostitution and to sleep in the massage parlors where they were exploited. Two of the locations were within ten minutes of my home.
Prostitution is often debated as to whether it should be included in trafficking of persons. Yet the average age when women enter prostitution is 14. Prostitutes are beaten an average of twelve times a years and are twenty times more likely to be murdered than the average American. Seventy-two percent have fled situations of physical or sexual abuse when they were children. It was statistics like these that led one of our local judges to launch an innovative sentencing diversion program called CATCH (Changing Actions To Change Habits) to help women appearing before his bench to leave the sex trades instead of going to prison.
This is not a hopeless situation. There is much both at home and abroad that can be done:
- Pass and fund tougher law enforcement. A coalition of religious groups, social agencies and legislators in my state have done this.
- Support agencies that rescue and provide aftercare including job placement help to victims. The one I had the chance to learn about working in Moldova is called Kingdom Paradigm. One of the foremost groups doing this work is International Justice Mission, founded by former U.N. human rights investigator, Gary Haugen.
- Address the demand side of the equation. This includes prosecuting the perpetrators (‘johns’ and child pornography users and makers). It means cultivating a culture where we raise men to respect both women and themselves. (“Real men never pay for or force sex.”) And it means attention to the sourcing of everything from our electronics to our clothes.
While I’m on the subject, I want to give a shout-out for an event this weekend for those in the Columbus area. Students from several area law schools, local attorneys and a collegiate ministry are co-sponsoring a symposium on Saturday October 17 at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. Speakers include Judge Paul Herbert, who founded the CATCH program I mentioned above, and other anti-trafficking researchers and advocates. Information and registration can be found here.
The commodification of people is a double-edged sword. When we tolerate the commodification of some, we create a society in which all of us are commodities rather than human beings of dignity and inherent worth. We cannot deny the human rights of some without placing those of all of us in jeopardy. There is a new generation of abolitionists taking the places of More, Equiano, and Wilberforce. The question is whether we will heed their call and join their efforts.