At the end of 2010, President Obama issued a presidential proclamation declaring January "National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month." The designation reflects a growing awareness of this worldwide injustice. The exploitation and enslavement of more than 12 million people throughout the world demands our attention - and our urgent action.
Countries around the world serve as highways, intersections, and destinations for the ever-increasing trafficking of human beings, and the United States is far from exempt. According to the Polaris Project, "The United States is known as a destination country for transnational trafficking networks that bring foreign nationals into the U.S. for purposes of both sexual and labor exploitation."
But while victims experience the reality of human trafficking with heart-rending clarity, the facts of modern day slavery remain vague for many Americans. The issue is still gaining ground as grassroots organizations all over the world seek to educate and empower individuals to take action against the evils of modern day slavery.
"Cage" - that's how British photojournalist Hazel Thompson refers to Mumbai's infamous Red Light district, Kamathipura. For two straight months, Thompson shot photos throughout the district. Her coffee table book, carrying the title of "Cage," captures Mumbai's Red Light district in all of its filth and fear.
Thompson wanted to expose the evils of the slave trade through vivid and compelling images. "I think every country has a blind spot towards trafficking," Thompson was quoted as saying in an article in the Hindustan Times. "It's the same story all over the world."
So how do Christians tackle the reality of modern day slavery? What is our role? And how do we begin to embrace our responsibility? Today many Christians are asking, "What is being done, and how can I be a part of it?"
KK Devaraj, the founder of Bombay Teen Challenge, has dedicated his career to rescuing victims of sex trafficking in Mumbai's Red Light district. For Devaraj, the question of what to do has only one answer. "We must stop sex slavery and must stop it now," he says. "There is only one word for this - stop!"
Anyone who has met Devaraj recognizes that this man's guardianship of his "daughters," the enslaved women and girls of Mumbai's Red Light district, knows no bounds. And with good reason: the plight of these girls would break a heart of stone.
Take for instance, the story of Lalita (name changed), who became a victim of human trafficking before the age of 13. Sold on the streets of Mumbai after being trafficked from her native country of Nepal, Lalita was HIV positive by the time she was rescued. She graduated from a Bombay Teen Challenge program, and lived to encourage the women and girls around her. But the disease contracted during her enslavement allowed her only a few years of freedom. She died a few weeks ago.
"There are many more girls out there in cages (red light areas) and if we do not move with a sense of urgency, by the time we find them, it will be too late for some of them," Devaraj says. "This is the reason we have launched the Stop Sex Slavery campaign, to say ‘Enough is enough; we cannot tolerate this anymore. They are our daughters!"
Cases of labor trafficking, as well as sex trafficking, occur throughout the world, according to the Polaris Project. Domestic servitude and enslavement are a reality for thousands. Typically, the Polaris Project says, these cases happen in situations with little oversight, such as domestic work environments in private homes; small independently-owned family businesses such as restaurants or nail salons; peddling and begging rings; and larger-scale labor environments such as agricultural farms or large sweatshop-like factories.
"We will never know how many more girls have died in the red light district and were discarded even without a proper burial," Devaraj wrote following Lalita's death, "Tonight, as I am writing this to you, not far from my house, the dreams of a little girl [like her] are being shattered. This very night, not far from my house, the innocence of a little girl is being violated again and again."
If the story of Lalita makes you angry - even furious - you're not alone. But as Christians, we can't allow ourselves to be paralyzed by grief. We have to act.
Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission has learned something about the nature of the enemy, of those who would traffic innocent women and children into various forms of slavery.
"In IJM's work around the world these past 13 years," Gary says, "We've discovered that slave masters and traffickers expect their opponents to show up late and quit early — and they are simply not intimidated. What they do not expect is fearless, sacrificial love that does not go away."
It is that sacrificial love that keeps Devaraj and others like him coming back to the filthy streets of the Red Light district. "I want to work myself out of this job," he says, "We must stop sex slavery and must stop it now. Let us free our children to be children. Let them run and laugh and dream and grow. Let us free them from the chains of sex slavery."
There are many ways to get involved in combating human trafficking internationally. The following organizations provide resources and information to get started.
Bombay Teen Challenge
International Justice Mission
Stop Sex Slavery
Stop the Traffik
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com and covers religious freedom and human rights issues at BreakPoint.org. She has visited Mumbai's "Red Light" district, as well as the work of Bombay Teen Challenge. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].