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December 2002/January 2003
Stopping Slavery: An Abolitionist Call to Action

By Jesse Sage


Fourteen-year-old Abuk Gar was sleeping when the raiders descended upon her village in southern Sudan. Arab militia forces armed by the government stormed in, shooting Abuk’s parents and abducting her into bondage along with other children. Tied by the wrists and roped in a line, Abuk was marched north.

Then the rapes began. Four girls who resisted had their throats slit for all to see, as a warning. Abuk had to submit. Every day of the ten day march she was gang-raped. And once given to her master in the north, she served him by day in his field and by night in his bed.

Abuk’s story is one of millions. While she suffered a most intense form of chattel slavery, her experience of forced labor for no pay is by no means unique. From sex slaves in Thailand to bonded laborers in India to peach pickers in the United States, an estimated 27 million people live in bondage. The cruel irony of our advanced age is that more people live in slavery today than ever before.
Given today’s massive population boom—in regions of staggering poverty—masters enjoy a surfeit of potential slave labor and enormous potential profits. With slaves traded for as little as $30, masters work slaves only when they are profitable, then discard them. In an age of record salaries and a booming economy, some human lives have never been less valuable.

Slave labor touches us in many ways. Charcoal from forced laborers in the Brazilian rainforest makes the steel in our cars. Oriental rugs found in our homes are woven by Pakistani child slaves. Sweet “beedi” cigarettes rolled by slave children in India are smoked by thousands of teens every day.

Though slavery has been made illegal everywhere, a more cunning form of human bondage has risen in its wake. And precisely because this new slavery exploits the gap between law and social reality, it is all the more incumbent upon governments and civil society to take action.

First, governments must expose slavery wherever it occurs—and pressure companies that benefit from slave labor or partner with slaving nations. Surprisingly, this is an uphill battle. For instance, several European countries—acting in the interests of oil giants like TotalFina and Lundin—have turned a blind eye to slavery in Sudan, putting profit over principle. European oil firms drill on land cleared with slave raids, and their proceeds—shared with the genocidal Sudanese regime—help fuel more raids. Slaving regimes like Sudan should be shamed, and officials must highlight the abuses. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Second, governments must understand that the global economy’s trade in human beings requires special cooperation. The same energy invested in international efforts against the narcotics trade should be pledged to fight the trade in slaves. Governments should open special offices to spotlight slavery and trafficking worldwide, a step President Bush is now considering.

Slavery is not a problem limited to the “third world.” A recent CIA report, for instance, estimates 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the U.S. each year as slaves. So we must also recognize slavery as a pressing domestic civil rights concern. That means that civic institutions—from the press, to civil rights organizations, to faith-based groups—should do their part to place abolition on the political agenda. Human bondage is arguably the worst civil rights violation occurring in any country today.

Indeed, citizens should not wait for their governments to act. The voice and vigilance of every citizen is vital to exposing and eradicating contemporary slavery. With a growing number of slavery cases occurring right in our backyards, ordinary citizens should be on the lookout for cases of forced labor. They may suddenly find themselves literal rescuers and abolitionists.

But the most important thing to be done by all—from students to senior citizens—is to become vocal. Today’s slaves suffer in silence. They have no voice. But we can be their voice. Just as we stand up for prisoners of conscience, we must now stand up for “prisoners of commerce.” Though not intellectuals or political leaders, slaves are no less deserving of our support. We have a responsibility to exercise our freedom to help free others.

While the reality of millions in bondage may seem daunting, abolitionists have never been more powerful. The moral argument against slavery has prevailed. Our inter-connected, global economy means what one individual does can be felt around the world. And advances in communications have made the world smaller than ever before.

The Internet here is the key, allowing people around the world to communicate, collaborate, and organize. That is why a dedicated group of abolitionists have launched, an action network designed to unify and amplify the voices of freedom. Every week, tens of thousands of ordinary people take two minutes out of their busy schedules to help free slaves, targeting governments, corporations, and leaders with the message that slavery will not be tolerated.

Abuk Gar suffered for nine years in silence, enduring rape and humiliation in bondage. We cannot sit by quietly while she—or anyone else—endures the horrors of contemporary slavery.

A human rights activist based in Boston, Jesse Sage is Associate Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group and edits their Web portal, Reprinted with permission.


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