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
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
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
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,
or call (202) 588-1865.