Friday, October 23

Human Trafficking and "Not My Life"

One of the biggest problems in our world today is that of human trafficking - sex slavery, illegal labor forces, and so forth. This problem is a social justice issue, one that is addressed by Catholic Social Justice. Now, the documentary “Not My Life” explores human trafficking in thirteen countries across the globe. In an June 2009 interview with the producer, she said that many people deny the reality of modern slavery because it is an uncomfortable truth, saying, "No, this is not my life." This is where the title of film is derived from. The documentary brings this truth to life before our eyes. The first group of children seen in the documentary are boys who are 18-19 years old, although one is 10. They work 14 hour days in hot weather on Lake Volta, are given one small meal a day, and work every day of the year. Now, there are laws against human trafficking in Ghana, but there are not enough resources to enforce it. The working conditions are not the best, either. At Lake Volta, due to the murky water, many boys die every year by entangling themselves into the net. Further, many of the boys contract malaria or other infections and injuries.

Another group of children is seen in India. Everyday there are children whose rights are being violated and whose lives are being ruined. The exploitation of children occurs in roughly 190 countries across the globe. The vast amount of them are poor. Poverty is an incredible factor in making these individuals vulnerable to the slave trade. The lives of many of the world’s poor are lived on the streets, and nowhere are the streets more crowded than in India. Six children born every hour in India. They are stolen and sold to different people then work as child labor, domestic labor or sex slaves. It happens everywhere in India. In the city of New Dehli, it is illegal for children to be at the garbage dump. Some children profit by their labor. But rising before dawn, working all day, they are barely paid. They suffer from disease and malnutrition. Some children are physically bent from bending so much.

Another area is near the Albanian border. One trafficker said he made arrangements with the families. One young trafficker said he started when he was 14. He found a prostitute, kidnapped her and started selling her. He had no remorse, saying, “I didn’t give them food. I beat them. I used my fist and my feet... I think they will have this nightmare the rest of their lives... They will never again be normal women.” As the young man says this on camera, he is smiling and laughing! Elsewhere, one girl was executed to show to the others not to disobey. They were shot or burned. One Sister had seen women burned with cigarettes, some were shot, and one of the girls became paralyzed.

Between 2003-2007, the FBI in Oklahama City conducted the first widespread investigation in the United States: Operation Stormy Nights. This operation was successful in convicting 15 pimps. Most of the victims were young, teenage girls. One girl came out of Kansas. Everything was going well for her until she started to experience some issues. She had normal teenage problems, and became depressed at school. A 14 and 15 year old approached her. These three girls decided to run away, getting a break from what she thought was crisis. One of the girls called a man in Oklahoma City, who traveled to pick them up - but he was a pimp. The girls were told that for them to break away or reach out to law enforcement, they would be killed, and so would their families. After coming out of this tragedy, Angie wanted to help people. This represents what the nation is facing when we look at these kids who are being trafficked on our own land.

But even the brothels of India or the trade in the United States does not compare to the brutality of global sex tourism in Phnom Penh - the largest sex slave area on the planet. There are children whose lives are in daily danger. Now, historically, these places have had a reputation for sex slaves for hundreds of years - but the difference today is that it is no longer the sailor off the ship, but people from all over the world coming off the planes every single day. The little girls live in little shacks, and the buyer will go house to house, look at the girls, pick one out and have them delivered to your house. The buyer can keep them a few hours, a night, or a month. Every girl says that the worst pedophiles are from the United States. One girl was seven, and told her story - if she refused, they’d electrocute her.

Lastly, there was Grace. Grace was a child soldier fighting in armed warfare. In Uganda, killing, hunger and rape were a part of her daily life. Escape was not an option. One girl who had tried escaping was beaten horribly. At one point, there was a long march to Sudan. Some kids would start killing themselves on this long march because they were so hungry and so weak. When they arrived, each child was given an AK-47. Some of these children were forced to kill their own families. After nearly a year in captivity, Grace managed to escape. This kind of evil should be stop. It’s terrible that grown-ups are raping children, destroying the future and are using them for armed warfare. Human traffickers give these children scars for the rest of their lives. Children are not commodities.

But not all hope is lost. As one man said, “I’m impatient because convicting 3,000 isn’t enough. Freeing 40,000 isn’t enough. Hope is people in Africa learning about human rights and human trafficking. You see the end of child marriage, domestic violence. You see the community standing up. Hope is those who do not turn away, who do not forget.” One woman became a rights advocate. One works as a physicians assistant. One is a nurse. One is a college student. One was rescued and is back in school. There is hope - but there is still a long way to go. What can one do in the face of so much suffering? The documentary begins and ends with a shot of rising and submerging into water. Perhaps the director’s intent was to convey the message of the ocean. We are, in many ways, facing a vast ocean of people, and many are helplessly trying to swim while the attackers keep coming. Taken from another angle, we feel helpless, like a single drop in an ocean of hurt people. How do we help? Catholic Social Thought speaks to this enormous problem. Human trafficking, not only sex slavery but also child labor and others, denies the dignity of the human person, there are unfair wages, poor working conditions, sexual violence that violates their whole being and not only rapes their body but also their mind.

First of all - we can pray. Awareness is also key. Everyone - including myself - ought to become educated, to learn the red flags that may imply human trafficking. If someone is educated on the topic and becomes more aware, they can also begin to raise awareness in others - at churches, in organizations, at retreats, and so forth. One can find readily accessible material online, in books, in documentaries and in articles. For my part, I was blind to human trafficking and the horrors it has wrought upon our world until recently. It has changed the way I view many things. For example, after spending time at the Slavery Footprint website, I was told that 30 slaves work for me - meaning, there are over 30 people enslaved who have made the clothes I wear, the products I use and the food I eat.1 The fact that roughly 30 slaves would be working for a single person should shock us, astound us, and call us to action.

On a more practical level, there are a number of good websites that help raise awareness and provide resources for those who are involved in fighting the problem. Slavery 101 is one resource - it is an short, informative video that discusses multiple aspects of slavery. Another resource is Love146, which presents a number of survivors’ stories, videos, ways to make a difference, and information about human trafficking. Yet another is Stella's Voice, which is intended to reach out to orphans in Moldova, and save young girls from falling prey to traffickers.2 For those who listen to talk shows or podcasts on their cell phones, mp3 players, laptops or other means, one of the best resources is the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, which is put forth by the Global Center for Women and Justice. The episodes are usually around half an hour in length, and provide up-to-date news and information to help counter human trafficking. One may also wish to set up a Google alert. This can be done by typing "human trafficking" into the search area, and you can receive - depending on your preferences - a daily or a weekly email with the most recent blogs, articles and news items related to the issue.3

One could also read a book, such as Terrify No More by Gary Haugen and Gregg Hunter, Good News about Injustice and Just Courage, by Gary Haugen, Disposable People by Kevin Bales, Not For Sale or by David Batstone. Although reading the book itself does not necessarily free anyone who is a slave, it can increase an individual or a group’s knowledge and education, which they can share with others. The more aware we become of the problem, the more possibilities we will have open to us. On the state level, there is a website, Shared Hope International, which has gone through and graded each state's effectiveness in addressing human trafficking issues. By spending some time looking at the detailed reports for your state, you can become attuned to what is going on, and begin to take steps to learn what you can do to help. Information is also available to contact state officials to challenge them on what is or what is not being done to protect, to rescue and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking.4 Further, CSPAN often records or has the transcripts of meetings between our elected officials. Reading or watching these meetings can greatly help in raising awareness, particularly if you share this information with others.

Another way to live mindfully and live with awareness is to look for “fair trade” labels when purchasing products. Oftentimes, coffee, chocolate, rugs and other products have been produced by child slaves. The documentary “Dark Side of Chocolate” exposes some of the child slavery and labor going on in the Ivory Coast, and their attempts to raise awareness with the major chocolate manufacturers. One way to avoid this is by looking into websites such as, which gives several ways in which you can avoid buying products made by slaves, and the alternatives that are available. In short, human trafficking is one of the worst, if not the worst, problem facing mankind today. It is not simply confined to sex slaves in India. It involves the arms dealers. It involves the pornography industry. It involves child labor being used to make products to ship internationally. It involves the abuse of men and women at all ages and in all walks of life. As the documentary stated, “No one really knows how many [people] are for sale in the world today. The physical scars and injuries can be cured. The mental torture is incurable. They lose self-confidence. They lose trust in others. They shut out all their dreams.” Human trafficking must be fought, and as I grow in awareness of these problems facing us, I am convicted to continue searching. Growing in awareness and education is a good start, but I refuse to stay put, and sit on this issue. The mission of the Church does not allow that - and neither will my conscience as a human being.

[1] Estimated. We do not truly know how many slaves there are in the world today, nor all of the companies or individuals who use people.
[2] Tomczak, Linda. "Human Trafficking: 20 Things You Can Do Today To Stop It." Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). 15 Jan. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. .
[3] "20 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Trafficking." U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. .
[4] Ibid.

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