, ,

President Obama has proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. These events are intended to raise awareness and to recommit US efforts to ending a great social injustice of our time: human trafficking. The practice, affecting developing and developed countries alike, is a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery.

“When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery. . . . When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family — girls my daughters’ age — runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists — that’s slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.”
U.S. President Barack Obama at Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, Sept 25, 2012

Human trafficking refers to the practice of buying, selling, beating, abusing, exploiting and coercing millions of women, men and children into forced labor and sexual exploitation. According the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, approximately 27 million individuals are sold, traded, and forced into servitude within their communities and across borders and seas. The most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation (it comprises about 79 percent of documented cases). While men and boys are affected, victims are predominantly women and girls, including child brides.

With President Obama’s renewed commitment, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) must focus on efforts to end both child marriage and trafficking–which often intersect. USAID’s Vision for Action to end child marriage makes clear that the two practices intersect when marriage is used in conjunction with force, fraud, coercion and the abuse of power as a means of subjecting girls to conditions of slavery.

The links between child marriage and trafficking are complex.

In some countries, like Mauritania, the trafficking of girls for the purposes of forced marriage is not uncommon. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has documented cases of Mauritanian girls as young as 6-years-old being married to men in the Gulf States. In other countries, like India and Nepal, dowries and economic incentives associated with marriage can mask trafficking. In these countries, where the prevalence of child marriage and trafficking are high, an early marriage can place young girls at increased vulnerability to being trafficked or re-trafficked, especially those who successfully flee their spouses and cannot safely access shelter or support services.

The reverse also happens: young girls are first sold into domestic slavery, and then forced into early marriages.

“Sold into domestic slavery at the age of 6, Urmila is now free and leading the fight to abolish Nepal’s Kamalari slave system with help from Plan International.

Trafficking is not only an international issue, it also happens within the United States. For the first time, at President Obama’s request, the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report includes an assessment of how the U.S. is tackling human trafficking within its borders. Since the U.S. is often one of the first in the international community to highlight other countries’ inaction against modern-day slavery, this step is welcomed. There is, however, much more to be done in the U.S., in terms of preventing trafficking across and within its borders.

Congress should reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a law that passed with strong bipartisan support in 2000 and that Congress reauthorized in 2003, 2005 and 2008. The TVPA aids in the prosecution of traffickers, imposing stiff penalties. It also offers important services and benefits to help victims rebuild their lives. As of today, the reauthorization bill has stalled in the House. The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, which passed the Senate in May 2012, has also stalled in the House.

In March 2012, the New York Times editorial affirmed that “passing a law to fight human trafficking and slavery is one of those bipartisan no-brainers that Congress used to be able to accomplish — as it did three times in the administration of George W. Bush . . ., especially tragic at a time when innovative approaches are making gains.” In his September 2012 speech at the Clinton Global Health Initiative, President Obama called upon Congress to reauthorize the TVPA.

Today would certainly be a fitting time to do it.