In the US, slavery is highlighted by National Human Trafficking Awareness Month each September. Since President Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation a hundred and fifty years ago, slavery has changed from the overt to the covert, with human trafficking remaining one of the worst global issues, estimated to have a total market value of 32 billion US dollars. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports ‘human trafficking is the largest growing criminal enterprise in the world’ on a par with arms smuggling, though behind drug smuggling.
A number of years ago slavery and the sex trade were brought into our lives while living in Asia. Bo, our maid, was the backbone of our household, keeping me aligned with the social mores of her country as well as helping with the chores. I was privileged to know her and trusted her implicitly with the safety of our children whenever I was out. Returning one Sunday afternoon with my family, I followed a keening sound to the bathroom on the top floor of our townhouse. There I found Bo and a young girl cowering behind the door. The girl, who knowing Sunday was her aunt’s day off, had escaped to our home from a brothel to which her father had sold her. There followed a difficult few weeks during which time our lives were threatened, and paranoia was beginning to assail me every time I left the house. The situation was eventually managed by us agreeing to adopt the child, a fourteen year old with raven-sheen hair, for the duration of our time in the country. She lived with us for two years and was our children’s playmate, helped her aunt, and studied English and dressmaking, the trade of her choice.
Globally there are estimated to be between 20 and 30 million slaves with the price for each slave being approximately $90, with about 80% of slavery involving some kind of sexual exploitation. In the US, shockingly, the average of age of teens entering the sex trade is between 12 and 14 years of age, often runaways escaping an abusive home life.
Houston has, like all cities, an underbelly of crime with one of the most heinous being slaving though according to the non-profit Polaris Project, Texas is one of the top four states with regard to having a strong legal framework for human trafficking in place. The Harris Country Sheriff’s Office reports the typical trafficking victim as being ‘an underage, American-born, English-speaking Anglo female’. That surprised me, considering Houston is a known stop on the pipeline reaching up from the Mexican border for both drugs and human trafficking.
Unscrupulous coyotes, the people offering passage to men, women and children hoping for a chance of a better life and entering the country illegally, imprison their human cargo demanding more and more money. In the meantime their prisoners are put to work, often in the sex trade. Fear for their lives, fear of reprisal to their families back home, fear of detention, along often with a steady supply of drugs to keep them sedated and pliable, and their limited English keeps them enslaved.
Slaves of yore, whilst often horribly mistreated did have a financial value if only to protect the investment to get them, and keep them as a viable workforce. Today the value of slaves, particularly in the sex trade, is negligible. Over a short time span there is often a high turnover rate with easy access to more, unprincipled men and women being ever eager to prey on the hopes and dreams of desperates. Even if escape is possible, chances of a normal life are slim, the distrust, fear and drug dependency instilled by their captors combining to alienate them from a society in which they know no one.
Texas is one of the states to offer ‘safe harbor’ laws which exempt children from prosecution for prostitution, and strict punishment for those selling children. Like many laws in America there are variances from state to state with no federal mandate, but at least safe harbor is offered in some states, and child marriage is illegal.
The UN Population Fund estimates that if the pace of child marriage continues the number will be in excess of 14.2 million annually by 2020. Guinea, Chad, Niger and Mali in Africa, and Bangladesh in Asia, have the highest figures for child marriage; and earlier this year a law banning the practice was struck down by Islamic states in Nigeria, Sharia law allowing marriage for girls of 9, and less if her guardian deems her sexually mature.
Last year the UN called on India to uphold the law against child marriages despite pleas from some village leaders that the official age of 18 be lowered “in order to avoid incidents of rape.” However, one has only to remember Missouri State Representative Todd Akin’s declaration that a woman’s body has a way to prevent pregnancy in the case of ‘legitimate rape’, to realise some politicians in America seem unable to understand the workings of the female body.
It seems incredible in 2013 the world is still battling ignorance on such an epic proportion, but until education and healthcare become accessible globally the desire to flee corruption and poverty will continue to feed the coyotes from all over the world. The result is human trafficking and a steady supply of girls and boys to the sex trade.