October 10, 2009

Free the Slaves tackles human trafficking

Posted in Between Us column, Women at 5:12 pm by dinaheng

Most people know that slavery still exists in today’s world, but don’t pay much attention until an Elizabeth Smart gets on the stand to testify about the abuse she suffered at age 14 from a kidnapper and his wife who held her captive for nine months.

Even then, many would say, how horrible that such a thing would happen to one young girl, not realizing that modern slavery doesn’t just occur as isolated incidents. According to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, there are at least 12.3 million adults and children in forced or bonded labor and commercial sexual servitude at any given time.dinah-eng-21

In the United States, State Department research estimates between 14,500 to 17,500 slaves are trafficked into the United States annually — a person every 36 minutes — says Peggy Callahan, co-founder and director of communications of Free the Slaves, a non-profit organization that works to eradicate slavery through legislation and aids grassroots anti-slavery organizations in seven countries.

“The definition of slavery is being forced to work without pay, under threat of violence and unable to walk away,” says Callahan, also executive producer of Free the Slaves’s educational documentaries. “Most people think of sex slavery, and it’s much bigger than that.”

Slavery means forcing people to do the dirty work that others don’t want to do — be it laboring in fields, mines, clothing factories, restaurants, or as domestic servants. It also includes human trafficking of women and children as sex slaves.

On October 13, Free the Slaves will be presenting its second annual Freedom Awards in Los Angeles to some remarkable individuals who have dedicated their lives to eradicating slavery. These freedom fighters include:

* Sinn Vann, who was kidnapped at age 13, drugged, raped and put to work in a Cambodian brothel. She was raped by 20 to 30 men nearly every day, rescued, only to be returned to the brothel by corrupt policemen. After a second rescue, she decided to help sex slaves escape, and to give health advice to those who remain trapped.

* Veero, the sole name of a woman whose family was kept hostage at a farm in Pakistan to pay off a bogus debt, slipped away and walked to the nearest town to stage a three-day sit-in at a police station, demanding that authorities take action. After police freed her family, she went to work teaching other illiterate villagers how to stand up for their rights, despite death threats from the slaveholders.

* The Working Women’s Association, Shramajivee Mahlia Samity, is a group of activists in India who work undercover to expose traffickers of domestic slaves. The group helps slavery survivors to return home and rebuild their lives.

* Two young American women — Alexis Weiss, a paralegal who has helped to build cases against sex traffickers in the United States and Africa, and Betsy Bramon, who has done research on slavery in Amsterdam and Cambodia — will receive one-year fellowships to study at Georgetown University and work with Free the Slaves.

“This year, all the winners are women, which reflects how important women are around the world to ending slavery,” Callahan says. “We know we can end slavery in 25 years. There are a lot of things people can do to help.”

Callahan makes these suggestions:

* Urge representatives to join the Congressional Caucus on Human Trafficking;

* Spread information about the issue of slavery online through e-mails, blogs and social networking sites;

* Buy or rent a movie or documentary about slavery and have a movie night in your home to talk about slavery and what you can do about it;

* Have your book club read books about slavery and discuss it; and

* Participate in the activities of organizations like Free the Slaves.

“I think people want to be part of the solution,” Callahan says. “Many times, people are overwhelmed because they don’t see what they can do as individuals. But we’ve made a lot of head room in the last 10 years.

“Before, when slave holders were caught in the United States, they were prosecuted under labor violations. Now, they’re prosecuted under anti-slavery violations. The need is to get it to where people aren’t enslaved in the first place.”

For more information, check out www.freetheslaves.net.

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