It troubles me that so many posters and campaigns about sex trafficking in the US depict a slender white girl with long, straight, blonde hair. The reality is that 77% of victims in human trafficking incidents reported in the U.S. are people of color. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Report).
Of course, people of each and every race and class can be and have been trafficked, but the vast majority of trafficked persons, both in the US, and internationally, are people who were already vulnerable or even invisible to the rest of society: poor people, ethnic minorities, members of tribal and native communities, people of low caste or class, kids coming out of foster care, marginalized people, LGBT youth, marginalized women and girls.
Are some kinds of kids (blonde girls for example) more precious, more worthy of action and attention in our society than other kinds of kids – the heavyset black girl with a defiant expression, the gay teenage boy with crooked teeth (because he grew up in foster care and DSS doesn’t pay for braces), the Asian girl in bright ethnic clothing (not in our backyard, not our problem)? The sad truth is that these people are less visible, they get less public attention, less concern, fewer resources. I call this otherizing.
According to the latest numbers from the UN’s International Labor Organization and Walk Free, there are over 45 million men, women and children living in slavery in our world today. For the girls we work with in India, Nepal, and Thailand, and for millions of others around the world, trafficking and the related issues of child marriage and child labor have their roots in poverty and the low status of women.
Rani’s story is typical: Rani was born into a family of 6 children in a rural area, in Northern India. Her family were members of a tribal minority group. There wasn’t enough money to send all of the children in the family to school, so Rani stayed home and helped her mother with housework and childcare for her younger brothers (who did go to school). At the age of 8, she began to be sexually abused by an uncle. When her parents learned of it, they saw her as broken and ruined, so when Rani was 11, they sent her to work as a domestic servant. In that job, she was sexually exploited by the father and brothers of the family, and physically tortured by the mother (scalded with boiling water, made to sleep naked so she would not run away). Rani ran away to a city in a neighboring state, and from there was soon trafficked into a brothel. When she was finally rescued, Rani trusted no one. Every single person she had trusted in her life had betrayed or abused her.
Trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and while it is possible for people from all walks of life to become victims, certain types of people are disproportionately targeted. These are people like Rani who were already invisible – seen as less valuable by the rest of society. Rani had several vulnerabilities that are common to trafficking victims
- She came from a poor family in a rural area
- She wasn’t able to go to school
- She was a member of an ethnic minority
- She was a victim of sexual violence, in the family and then at work
- She ran away to a big city to escape that violence
- As a poor, minority girl and rape victim, she was already at the lowest rung on the ladder of society. She was both invisible and disposable.
If we are ever going to tackle the problem of slavery, and other human rights crises in our world, we have to get real about the connection between trafficking, poverty, gender, racism and discrimination. We have to look deeply at who we view as Others. Who matters, who gets the attention of the press, who do we all jump up from our seats to fight for? Can we broaden those parameters?
We are a strong and loving people – we have the resources and compassion to take all of the vulnerable girls and boys into our hearts. Let’s work together to fight tirelessly for all the world’s children. If we truly believe that every enslaved person is our problem, we will have the energy, stamina and inexhaustible love to face this crisis and to bring slavery to an end, once and for all.
‘If we can do it, we must do it. We will do it!!’ Leela, a survivor from Calcutta, India