Saturday, January 17, 2004

Modern slavery, the faces of despair

In a moving testimonial, Kristof of the NYT performs an act that is almost heroic in its stature as he frees young slaves. However brave and moving his saving of these girls was, and it is a far better act than many people will go throughout their entire lives doing, it cannot solve the problem. Indeed, if we all collected together funds and put together a program to buy overseas sex-slaves their freedom it would only worsen the overall problem.

Q: How could buying the freedom of individual slaves actually worsen the problem?

For one thing, there's the eternal market laws of basic economic theory: supply and demand. As purchasing these girls will increase demand, it may actually stimulate "entrepreneurs" in order to go out and coerce more girls into slavery to supply the liberation movement. Also there has been no political will in order to free even a handful of these girls, much less large numbers. Kristof's act will remain an isolated bright and inspirational human act that has utterly no power to change the underlying situation that has created these problems. I've heard of other travelers or journalists when faced with this problem, cannot but help trying to save a few from a fatal end. Despite this, the problem has dragged on for years.

Q: If there's nothing we can do, then why should we worry about it?

There is something that can be done. Just nothing at the individual level. Kristof's greater motive in freeing these girls may be to bring their plight to the light of the (fickle) conscience of the developed world. These whorehouses and pimps can only operate with active police complicity. The police in turn can only act with at least a political culture that doesn't question their actions so long as they are sufficiently "discrete". The solution isn't necessarily to directly pressure the politicians on the issue of sex-slavery directly. It is to pressure the politicians in order to take steps that would modernize the country, which would gradually remove the conditions that produce such unconscionable practices.

So long as there is crushing poverty, people will always be tempted to sell young girls for money.

Q: Will development truly stamp out the problems of sex-slavery?

Unfortunately, no. Japan is a highly developed and prosperous country that is being investigated for sex-trade violations by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Organized crime and forced prostitution are linked. It is a hard thing to suggest that prostitution be legalized (as in Europe) but regulating sex-trade may result in better lives for those who voluntarily participate rather than involuntary slavery.

However, even Europe has its sex-trade problems. CNN reports that the same phenomena unfortunately occurs in Great Britain, with foreign girls coerced into prostitution by organized crime in England. It is ironic that one of the reasons that the Serbians were rightfully reviled for rape camps, now that SE Europe is "liberated" organization crime is moving in to establish "white slavery" drawing from women from SE Europe.

There are no up-to-date statistics for the size of the problem. But the Geneva-based International organization for Migration has estimated that 120,000 women and children were trafficked into the European Union each year, most of them through the Balkans.

In a grim assessment at the end of a year in which the OSCE pledged to do more to combat trafficking, the report said there had been no substantial increase in the prosecution of traffickers in southeastern Europe.

Q: Given that development alone cannot stop sexual slavery, do you suggest legalizing prostitution?

I am reluctant unlike some reform proponents to over-simplify the problem of forced prostitution. Even if prostitution were legalized, there is no reason to conclude that an underground black market would not exist. Criminals could continue to kidnap women from poor disadvantaged countries in order to provide a supply of "cheap" and "dispensable" forced labor pool that would give its proceeds directly to organized crime. The existence of hygienic legalized prostitution might decrease the demand for forced prostitution, but because it would almost certainly be more expensive there is no reason to conclude that full regulation would remove the problem.

Legalizing and regulating sex-trade workers could only be a single (highly controversial) step in solving the problem. Another solution could be strengthening illicit smuggling barriers between countries. However borders are porous and it is impossible to scrutinize every passenger deeply without creating huge delays, while many of the girls are fooled into coming "willingly" on false pretenses. Some border enforcement improvements would probably help though, such as training to spot such travelers and a network identifying known traffickers. Education could play a part, by establishing programmes informing young women and families in poor countries about the tricks that slavers use and how to report anyone who approaches them on suspicious grounds.

As Kristof discovered however, some of these women are actually sold into slavery by unscrupulous relatives. Clearly programmes targeting for intervention vulnerable households might be necessary, but also be Sisyphusian as a task. Target every poor household in a developing nation with a young pubescent woman for intervention? Only a small handful could be saved by such intervention methods. Another tack would be to encourage gradual adoption of women's rights, and to better the economic independence of women by pushing for laws that let them have their own bank accounts, credit cards, etc. For poorer women, proven programmes such as micro-lending which lends women small amounts of money to start (profitable) home businesses also would prevent women from being as vulnerable to this sort of predation. If their relatives saw them as a potential income stream to the family, they would have more incentive not to sell them into slavery.

Finally while economic development is not sufficient, it's clearly necessary to solve the problem. While developed nations do have forced sex-trade, most often it's filled with vulnerable women recruited from poorer nations with porous borders. A strong trafficking enforcement, family education, and development aid programme combination stands the best chance of success.

This is important. It's important because whenever we tell ourselves that the present economic and social order is "okay" and that it does more good than harm, we need to remember these faces of despair. It is not just one, or a few, but thousands upon thousands of lives doomed to this dark fate. It is a sign that there is something wrong with the system. If we don't fix it, the sickness that torments these young lives might spread in contagion to the rest of society and eventually bring about our own downfall. That this should be happening is a sign that something is dreadfully wrong.

Q: How bad is it?

It is a problem as serious in our time and as widely ignored as the slavery of African Americans was in a prior time. Many of the girls end up dead by HIV-AIDS which in turn spreads the sickness even more. This is pretty serious and should be considered a high priority for all civilized peoples.

18:9 The kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived wantonly with her, will weep and wail over her, when they look at the smoke of her burning,

18:10 standing far away for the fear of her torment, saying, 'Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! For your judgment has come in one hour.'

18:11 The merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their wares any more:

18:12 merchandise of gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet, all expensive wood, every vessel of ivory, every vessel made of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble;

18:13 and cinnamon, incense, perfume, frankincense, wine, olive oil, fine flour, wheat, sheep, horses, chariots, and the bodies and souls of people.

From the Book of Revelations, by John.

UPDATE: The New York Times Magazine has a story on imported sex-slaves and child-prostitutes in America. Read about it here.


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