By: Maurice I. Middleberg, Free the Slaves Executive Director
As Stephanie Be reported in her recent HuffPost article, the new documentary #standwithme provides fresh insight into the global problem of child slavery. It's important to note that there is a solution. With a little help, at-risk children can be protected against slavery, as can their parents and neighbors.
According to the International Labor Organization, at least 5.5 million children are slaves. Let's be clear what we mean by modern-day slavery: children who are forced to work, who do not have the choice to stop working, who are typically brought to the workplace as the result of fraud or coercion and receive no compensation other than the barest subsistence. Slavery takes many forms, including sexual slavery and manual labor in many industries, such as agriculture, construction, mining, fishing and the manufacturing of carpets and clothing. The work is brutal, hours are long, and abuse of all kinds is common.
Slavery is always rooted in vulnerability: slaveholders and traffickers prey upon those who are poorest, weakest and most marginalized in society. Slavery is most likely to affect clearly identifiable groups, villages and neighborhoods.
Five Keys to Ending Slavery
Fortunately, vulnerable communities can be empowered to resist trafficking and slavery. Free the Slaves has been working to end child slavery for more than a decade in hundreds of communities across multiple countries in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. Based on that experience we have defined five key elements to ending child slavery: educate, organize, serve, liberate and prosecute.
Educate: Parents, teachers, clergy and children needed to be educated about trafficking. In part, this means being sure people know their rights and the rights of children. For example, a common form of slavery is debt bondage, where families find themselves in servitude to a moneylender as a way of supposedly paying off the debt. Many people believe that the moneylender actually has a right to demand free labor, but this practice is universally illegal. Similarly, traffickers tell the unemployed plausible-sounding stories about better opportunities in other locations, only to trap victims in slavery once they've left home. A little education can go a long way toward fending off moneylenders, traffickers and others who prey on ignorance.
Organize: Communities that organize against slavery are better protected. In hundreds of communities, we have organized community groups that educate and counsel their neighbors, watch out for the welfare of children and stand on guard against traffickers. These groups serve as a kind of neighborhood watch against slavery.
Serve: Three key gaps increase the potential for slavery -- credit, schools and health care. The absence of legitimate sources of credit creates an opening for criminal moneylenders. Children who are not in school are especially vulnerable to being trafficked. A health emergency can drive a family into financial crisis, which then forces them into debt and vulnerability to slavery. Increasing access to credit, schools and health care creates a bulwark against child slavery.
Liberate: Training and modest investments help local non-governmental organizations and police identify, track and liberate enslaved children. Once freed, children need a period of physical and psychological care; in our experience, a transition shelter is often the best first step in helping children recuperate. Family counseling is also needed to ensure the child is being returned to a safe environment, as well as to help the family cope with its own feelings and the needs of the child.
Prosecute: Stepped-up law enforcement is also required. Only a tiny fraction of slavery perpetrators are ever arrested, and even fewer are punished in any meaningful way. Child slavery is a low-risk, high-profit business. Training and funding are often needed to provide the police and judiciary the tools they need to pursue trafficking cases. Vigorous advocacy can help achieve more stringent laws and more assertive application of existing law. Media training helps journalists investigate and report on policy inaction against slavery.
Does the Educate-Organize-Serve-Liberate-Prosecute formula work? The answer is yes. The communities in which we have applied this package become free of slavery and trafficking. It's not quick or easy, but it is effective. By building assets that offset vulnerabilities, communities are able to protect themselves from slavery over the long term.
We have learned a great deal about protecting children from traffickers. Systematically putting these lessons to work will move the world closer to eradicating slavery.