By Sarah Symons, Activist, Composer, Musician, and Founder of Made By Survivors
Imagine you are a middle-class person living in 1850. At that time there were approximately two million slaves in the American South. They were bought and sold for an average of $40,000 in today’s money, a valuable commodity. Slaves were a core part of the U.S. economy. They had no control over their lives, labor, health, nutrition, sexuality, or the lives of their children.
How far would you have gone to free people from slavery? Would you have risked your life rescuing slaves on the Underground Railroad? Would you have defied social standards by becoming an abolitionist, speaking to unreceptive ears, marching at rallies, and writing letters? Would you have given your time, money, and energy to helping freed slaves survive? Or would you, like most people at that time, have accepted the status quo of slavery?
You do not have to imagine. Slavery is a larger problem today than it was in 1850, larger than at any time in human history. According to the UN, there are now over 30 million men, women, and children bought and sold on an international market. Members of minority communities are at much higher risk for being trafficked into slavery, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Just like in the past, slaves have no control over their lives, labor, health, nutrition, sexuality, or the lives of their children. More slaves than ever are women and children. Twenty-two percent of children trafficked into slavery do not survive to adulthood. Many that do are permanently disfigured or psychologically traumatized.
There are a few differences between historical slavery and modern day slavery:
- Slavery is no longer legal anywhere in the world. However, it is still rooted in economics—slavery thrives where people are impoverished and have no realistic economic alternatives.
- Slavery is a multibillion dollar industry and the second largest criminal enterprise in the world.
- Slave labor is cheaper than ever: you can buy an eighteen-year-old male field slave or an eleven-year-old virgin girl for $80 rather than $40,000. Today, there is little motivation to keep slaves healthy or alive, when you can replace them so cheaply and easily. Enslaved people have become disposable.
Some facts remain exactly the same as in the 1850 scenario: Slavery continues to thrive because we as a society are willing to tolerate it. Modern slavery thrives in darkness and shame. As soon as one brings awareness to it—through public awareness and action—it dies down.
So where do you start? It is first important to understand what modern slavery looks like:
- What are people enslaved for? People are enslaved for commercial sexual exploitation (brothels), forced labor, domestic work, child soldiering, and forced begging.
- Where are the slaves? There is slavery in every country in the world, and every state in the U.S. People of every race and class have been trafficked, but the vast majority of trafficked persons are the poor, ethnic minorities, marginalized people, women, and children. In America, kids of color are disproportionately victimized for forced prostitution.
- How are people trafficked? Some are sold by parents, neighbors, or relatives. Some are tricked while in search of jobs. Some enter into false marriages and loverboy schemes and are sold by their so-called husbands or boyfriends. A few are kidnapped outright.
- How are people freed? Victims are freed in raids by police, or by local or international agencies working with police, or through community outreach efforts. A few escape on their own, or are thrown out by their traffickers when they become sick or too old to be of use.
What can we do about slavery?
My organization, Made by Survivors, is fighting slavery through education, employment, and empowerment of survivors and people at high risk. We work in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Uganda, and the United States. Our mission is to give survivors the tools to remain permanently free and to become community leaders who can prevent others from being exploited. We partner with local agencies and shelters all over the world to achieve these goals.
We train and employ survivors in well-paid, respected professions that place them well above the poverty line, and greatly improve their status in society. We use the funds from the sale products made by survivors in our program to build shelters, educate children freed from slavery (or born to parents in slavery), and to provide counseling, healthcare, and aftercare to survivors.
What can you do? You can give your time, perhaps by joining or starting a local task force. You can give your money, raise funds and awareness, spread the word individually, or buy a product (at www.MadebySurvivors.com) made by a trafficking survivor.
If you suspect someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, or at high risk, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 1-888-3737-888 to get help and advice.
Before you do anything else, you have to commit to fighting modern slavery, make it a priority in your life, and find the courage within yourself to make a difference.
I was drawn into this work, and ever since I have helped survivors of slavery, my life has been blessed miraculously, every week, year after year. Everything I thought I was giving up has been given back exponentially. When it seemed there was no money to continue the work, someone always appeared to carry us through to the next level.
The biggest miracle is the simplest—that lives seemingly so destroyed can be so restored, that survivors find the courage to go on living despite all they have suffered, and to make their lives a strong and beautiful example to us all.
In 2009, Symons was the recipient of the Count Me In Micro to Millions competition, the recipient of a Sam Walton Foundation award for women entrepreneurs, and was honored by the V-Day Foundation for her work preventing violence against women. She is the proud mother of two children and the spiritual mother to Anjali and Sunanda and scores of other survivors in Asia. Read more about Symons’ work and survivors in her new book, This is No Ordinary Joy, available on Amazon.com.