20 Million People Are Trafficked in Modern Day Slavery – America is Leading the Fight to Stop It


One in three. That’s the number of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, according to the United Nations. Depending on where they live, nearly three in five women will at some point endure physical violence. Of course, statistics don’t do justice to how brutally commonplace the occurrence of violence against women and girls is, whether in public or private spaces. The sad reality is these stories are reported in the news every day, all over the world in great detail – from horrors in Delhi, India to Steubenville, Ohio. Unfortunately, these same news stories include messages of victim blaming, arguments of consent, and junk science meant to invalidate the seriousness of these crimes.

While these statistics and stories make efforts to curb gender-based violence seem futile, we still have cause for optimism: in the United States, our laws and justice system have evolved, even if we’re still trying to catch up in practice. Not long ago, domestic violence was considered a family matter, and survivors were blamed for the abuse they suffered. Now, we place the survivor at the center of these cases, with a focus on his or her own experience and needs. We listen to their voices as we continue to shape our policies and practices. And as this knowledge helps us make progress to counter gender-based violence, these lessons can also guide our work to combat modern-day slavery, what we also call trafficking in persons.

The victim-centered approach used in gender-based violence cases has been effective in helping trafficking victims get their lives back on track. Gender-based violence and trafficking in persons are different crimes, though trafficking victims are often subjected to a range of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Those trafficked are sometimes raped as children or adults, beaten as domestic servants, forced into war, scalded with boiling water, impaled with nails, starved, and threatened. In forced labor settings, women and girls are disproportionately subjected to violence, living in fear of the danger faced by themselves and their loved ones.

Female victims of trafficking are the single mothers in Texas coerced into prostitution by a human trafficking ring that targeted their children’s daycare. They are Indonesian maids, sold in the classified sections of newspapers. They are women trapped on death row because they defended themselves against their traffickers. They languish in jails mistaken for criminals — “illegal immigrants” or “prostitutes” — instead of receiving the protection they need. They’re in brothels in South Asia, forced to work in sweatshops in South America, beg in the city streets of New York, or labor in the cocoa plantations of West Africa. Their exploitation is fueled by our own consumer habits — mining mica for that eye shadow shimmer or sewing a cheap jacket; picking cotton or isolating the minerals for our jeans, jewelry, shirts, and smartphones. And while trafficking victims are disproportionately women and children, men are also at risk.  

Our response to this crime must mirror what we’ve learned in responding to gender-based violence: first and foremost, helping the survivors get their lives back on track – through a multi-sectoral response including the legal, judicial, health, and housing sectors – and choosing for themselves their own way forward.

In the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, we report that only about 40,000 trafficking victims are identified every year compared to an estimated 20 million in the world today. That means not nearly enough trafficking victims are even on the path toward recovery, let alone helping inform and guide global policy on this issue. Instead, too many survivors who are identified are then denied their basic freedoms again by the very systems that were created to protect them – locked in shelters, deported, disrespected, and written off.

So international obligations go ignored. Opportunities to get ahead of this crime are lost. And critical knowledge about the needs of survivors and the vulnerabilities of trafficking operations goes untapped. Our global response to human trafficking is not yet equal to scale and scope of this crime — not in understanding, not in funding, and not in the stakeholders with seats at the table.

We developed new approaches to help us deal with gender-based violence. We can do that again when it comes to modern slavery. We must. After all, as President Obama said, “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time… The change we seek will not come easy, but we can draw strength from the movements of the past.” At the State Department, we’re committed to that fight. As Secretary Kerry said, “Slavery, whether in the United States or abroad, must be recognized, rejected and eliminated.” And so informed by survivors and aware of all that we are not seeing, we must work to ensure that our conscience, purchases, votes and elected officials all recognize and respond to this critical call to action.

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