Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


June/July 2003
Women in Modern Slavery
By Jessica Reitz



Over half of the 27 million-plus people enslaved throughout the world today—more than at any time in world history—are women and girls. From bonded laborers in the quarries of India and Pakistan, to the brothels of Thailand, to the mines deep in the forests of the Brazilian Amazon, women are used everyday to perform manual labor, domestic work, and sex work. Controlled physically and psychologically through violence or its threat, forced to work for little or no pay and unable to walk away, their labor is stolen for the benefit of others.

Every country has laws forbidding slavery, but it persists on every continent of the globe. The most prominent forms of modern slavery include debt bondage, trafficking, and chattel slavery. Chattel slavery is less common, concentrated primarily in Mauritania and Sudan. Debt bondage holds up to 20 million people in slavery in South Asia, and trafficking of humans is the third most profitable form of organized crime, falling only behind the trafficking of drugs and arms.

One example is the unbelievable but very real story of Seba. When Seba was eight years old, her parents gave her to a couple moving from Mali to Paris who promised to educate, care for, and pay Seba’s expenses. But when she reached Paris, Seba was enslaved as a household servant, beaten, tortured, forced into a life of monotonous domestic chores and unable to leave the house. Seba was freed after a neighbor saw her bruises and scars and contacted the police and the French Committee Against Modern Slavery. At 22 years of age, in the safety of a foster home, Seba learned to read and write and make decisions by herself, for herself, for the first time in her life. Seba’s childhood was stolen by slavery, and the psychological and physical abuse she endured will never be fully repaired.

Sadly, while Seba’s story is unique, her experience is not uncommon—she is one of many slaves in the world today who have been trafficked into domestic work. The majority, however, perform manual labor in debt bondage in South Asia. Women are enslaved in rock quarries in India where they move heavy rocks in oppressive heat and pulverize them into sand with small hand tools. Many of these women are born or married into a life of debt bondage, bound by an illegal debt their family has been held under for generations. Other women become enslaved because they are denied access to reproductive healthcare and strapped by the financial burden of supporting a large family. When a child is sick and there is no money to pay for medicine, a mother is faced with selling herself into slavery or allowing her child to die. She might spend her entire life as “collateral” to a debt amounting to no more than $100.

Unlike the legal debt that Americans can relate to, bonded labor entitles a slave owner to the women and all their productive capacity. Women are forced to work all day, but no matter how hard they work, the debt remains.

The Silent Revolution
Perhaps the most well-publicized form of modern slavery is the international trafficking of women for prostitution. Women are moved across international borders, many of them from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and South America, their bodies and lives bought by brothel owners for an average of $1,000. Once in the hands of traffickers, these women are repeatedly raped and beaten until they accept their enslavement. Brothel owners sell these women to several men every day and whatever income is received for their services goes toward their room and board, or directly into the coffers of the brothel owner. Women enslaved for prostitution are doubly bound, not only by the restrictions of the brothel owner, but by the foreign country where they cannot speak the language or understand the culture. They often fear the police and have no knowledge of their legal rights.

According to the U.S. State Department, over 50,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year; many are women trapped in prostitution or domestic work. These women are denied access to education, proper healthcare, and because of their isolation, cannot organize for justice. Fortunately, with the implementation of the Trafficked Victims Protection Act of 2000, women who escape from enslavement in the U.S. are now given temporary visas and access to psychological and legal counsel while awaiting the trial of their trafficker.

Many organizations, both in the U.S. and abroad, are organizing to free and reintegrate enslaved women into society. Shelters for trafficked women are being established across the U.S. with hopes of providing counseling, healthcare, and legal advice. Around the world, organizations such as Sankalp in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest and most environmentally-ravaged areas of India, are working with women and their families to organize what some have called a “silent revolution.” Sankalp advises and organizes bonded laborers into micro-credit organizations to acquire small-scale quarrying leases from the state. With Sankalp’s guidance, families work together to gradually secure enough rupees to acquire a lease on a piece of land, giving women and their families access to land ownership, a means of production, and the freedom to send their children to school. Local organizations and anti-slavery activists around the globe are doing tremendous work in freeing and reintegrating slaves back into society, oftentimes endangering their own lives for the freedom of others.

There is a bright side to this grim reality. Women in slavery are not only victims. They are survivors. Enslaved women across the globe are organizing and fighting back against a world that has exploited and forgotten them. “If you will not set me free then you should put a bullet in my heart and kill me,” proclaimed Suraj Kali, a former bonded laborer, to her slaveholding quarry contractor in Uttar Pradesh. “We also want rights to the lands; after all, we are also human beings.” With assistance from Sankalp, Kali, along with the other slaves she organized from her quarry, are now leasing their own land, running a store, and putting their children through school.

These women are building a revolutionary movement from the ground up to free themselves and their families from the establishments that control their bodies, their labor, and their lives. After escaping or freeing themselves, these women are speaking out and testifying to the existence and realities of slavery in today’s world. They are underfunded, overworked, and malnourished. They lack access to education and legal counsel. They are asking the international community for our support. As feminists and social justice advocates, we have a responsibility to listen to their voices, advocate and raise awareness on their behalf, and support the strenuous work they are doing. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to live in a world where slavery persists, and take action to ensure that it is eradicated.

Jessica Reitz is Director of Development and Outreach of Free the Slaves, a nonprofit Washington, DC-based anti-slavery group. For information on how you can join the fight against modern slavery, visit or call (202) 588-1865.

All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.