Slavery Now More Than Ever
By Mark Svensson, with Tarik Abdelqader
For over 5,000 years, the practice of slavery has plagued the human species. Today, most people in the United States associate slavery with African-American history, formed by the transatlantic slave trade, and ended by the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, a widely accepted notion exists in our nation is that U.S. participation in slavery ended following Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation. Yet this notion could not be any further from the truth.
The term "modern-day slavery" refers to the status or condition of a person who is under the control of another person, where that control is enforced by violence or psychological coercion. Here in the 21st century, the main forms of modern-day slavery are chattel slavery, debt bondage, and child labor. Human trafficking, another major dilemma, serves as a pipeline for many forms of slavery today. And while some of these forms of modern slavery occur in other parts of the world, our own country is deeply implicated in this abhorrent practice.
A few years ago, National Geographic reported that there were over 27 million slaves in the world today — more than any other time in human history. Chattel slavery is closest to the slavery that prevailed in early American history. Chattel slaves are considered their masters' property and are used as a commodity. These slaves are expected to perform labor and, often, sexual favors for their masters. Once of age they are forced to reproduce and the cycle of slavery repeats itself. Chattel slavery is typically racially-based; in the Sudan — where conflict between the mostly Arab North and the predominately black African South has raged for years — raids by Arab militias in the South have been known to kill all the men and take the women and children to be auctioned and sold into slavery. The Southern Sudanese villages primarily consist of the Christian Dinka, whom some Arabs view as inferior and unclean. Today, estimates place the number of Sudanese slaves between 14,000 and 100,000. Mauritania is another country plagued by the practice of chattel slavery. In Mauritania, dark Africans serve the lighter skinned Arab-Berber communities. Though slavery was legally abolished there in 1980, today 90,000 slaves continue to serve the Arab-Berber ruling class.
Debt bondage, or bonded labor, is the most widely practiced form of modern slavery around the world. In Southeast Asia, where it is most prevalent, Anti-Slavery International estimates that debt bondage claims an estimated 15 to 20 million victims. The staggering poverty in these areas forces many parents to offer themselves or their own children as security against a loan. Though most are told they will see their children or loved ones again when the loan is paid off, the reality, in most cases, is they won't. While working off these debts, room and board is provided at a cost, loans accumulate, and the interest rates are inflated leaving the person enslaved. As a result of these inhuman acts, the bonded laborer's children often inherit these debts and the vicious cycle continues.
Child labor continues to affect millions of children. South Asia is where child labor is most prevalent, especially in the carpet manufacturing industry. Children are used to produce carpets for two main reasons: first, their very low wages and their docile acceptance of terrible working conditions; and second, their good eyesight, which allows them to perform intricate work in very poor light. Child labor is most prevalent in India and Pakistan. Although, in 2006, India declared a ban on child domestic servitude, prohibiting employment of children in households, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses, until then there was no law that required attendance in school, and there was no law saying kids couldn't work. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are over 15 million child slaves in India, including between 200,000 and 300,000 carpet slaves. These children are kidnapped when they are young and are held captive in locked rooms where they are forced to weave for food. In Pakistan, children as young as 5 are auctioned off in warehouses in Pakistan's lawless border regions. Most of them are impoverished Afghan refugees bound for lives of servitude or prostitution. These children's only mistake was being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Human trafficking serves as a pipeline for the vast majority of modern-day slavery practices. Human trafficking is a criminal activity in which people are recruited, harbored, transported, bought, and kidnapped to serve an exploitative purpose, such as sexual slavery, forced labor, or child soldiery. The U.S. government estimates that the human trafficking industry generates annual revenue of over $9.5 billion, with at least $4 billion attributed to the worldwide brothel. After arms sales and drug dealing, trafficking in persons is the fastest growing global criminal industry. Some NGOs estimate the number of individuals trafficked each year to be as high as two million. Despite the U.S. Congress' enactment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (and Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act), the U.S. government still estimates that between 14,000 and 18,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States.
To know that there are individuals out there who are willing to steal a human's gift of freedom and life away is disheartening. It is sickening that the primary motive behind human trafficking and slavery is money and greed. I, Mark Svensson, look at this world dilemma now in a new way, thanks to an eye-opening experience about a year ago that changed my life.
The issue of modern-day slavery never crossed my mind until the fall of 2008. At the State University of New York (SUNY) Rockland last fall, former Sudanese slave and human activist Simon Deng spoke on campus about his personal account of being enslaved. Before leaving, Mr. Deng left us with the message that it only takes one individual to make a difference and spark a movement. It was this message that motivated me to establish the SUNY Rockland Anti-Slavery Committee.
For my colleague Tarik, the motivation to take action began from within. Tarik believes everyone born is given the gift of life, and that slavery — being the most inhuman act — takes away this gift. In his own words, "Children are born into this world depending on a father and mother to fulfill the necessities of survival. Along with survival one must be nurtured properly and thought how to survive and socialize in order to continue the cycle of life. Children brought up in slavery lack the nurturing a mother and father provide. The basic principles of life are never taught to these young individuals. Instead of going to school and gaining an education they are forced to work in harsh conditions and beaten and killed if they didn't perform their duties. The physiological damage done to these children often times can be irreversible."
For both of us, slavery — especially that which involves the use of young children — is despicable. People are aware of their actions and consequences, and for people to know what they are doing is wrong, yet continue to do so, is extremely troubling. At the same time, it fuels us to take action. While slavery is more prevalent now than at any other point in human history, we stand by Martin Luther King's belief that, "While the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice." We are determined to not allow the actions of a few affect the lives of millions.
Tarik and I are members of the SUNY Rockland Student Government Association. Tarik is the President and I am a Senator, and we co-chair the Anti-Slavery Committee. Our committee is currently leading an letter-signing campaign in support of H.R. 2522, the Congressional Commission on the Abolition of Modern-Day Slavery bill. If passed, this legislation would establish a U.S. commission aimed at monitoring and combating modern-day slavery in all its forms.
This bill was introduced and sponsored by Representative John Lewis in 2007. (Rep. Lewis, a Democratic Congressman from Georgia, is also a life-long member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation!) Although this bill has not yet become law, we believe its concept to be an ideal step in our country's effort to combat slavery. With over 40 co-sponsors, we feel that with more initiative and effort we can help make this bill, or a similar bill, into law.
The accounts and cases of slavery around the world are both horrific and frightening. Young woman and girls forced to repeatedly engage in sexual acts, often times leading to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Children, some as young as seven years of age, forced to work shifts up to 14 hours in brutal working conditions. Men, women, and children forced to work against their will, living from day to day with the uncertainty of whether it will be their last. Slavery continues to serve as a means of free labor and source for profits, as it has for millennia.
Yet our species is too intelligent to allow a practice like slavery to continue to grow and exist. The key to eradicating slavery is the enactment of government laws. It is up to the governments and free people of the world to work to bring justice to these victims and bring an end to these atrocious crimes. You can make a difference by supporting H.R. 2522. Join us in our support for this important legislation by clicking here to support an online petition. You can be the voice for those who have no voice. You can be the KEY to freedom.