Her name is Kim, and she is eight years old. Tonight she will be bought for sex — perhaps 10 times before the sun comes up.
The people who “own” Kim tell her that the money she makes — less than $2 a night — goes to her parents, and she is a good little daughter for helping them. In reality, her family never sees the money. In fact, they never see her again.
Kim has no idea that 2008 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. She has never heard of William Wilberforce, the young politician who waged a 20-year battle to end it. To Kim, slavery continues, and child trafficking is one of its faces.
Today, more people — 27 million adults and children — are held in slavery than in all the years of the colonial slave trade combined. One of its most horrifying forms is commercial sexual exploitation of children.
In 2008, 1.2 million children — mostly girls, but also boys — were bought and sold for sex around the world in organized prostitution rings. An “auntie” shows up in a village and offers to educate a distant niece. “Just sign here,” she tells the parents, who never see their child again.
Girls who belong to ethnic minority groups cross borders to earn money to send home to their families by selling the only possessions they have: their bodies. In one country, it’s possible to purchase a five-year-old girl — not just for an hour, but forever — for about $600. I’ve seen the cages that hold girls until they no longer have a will to fight. Their stories are horrific: abuse, torture, disease and eventually death by AIDS. Children are bought and sold for sex every night in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America and even the United States.
In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which went a long way toward reducing trafficking around the world. Child trafficking is illegal in almost every country, but in many places, laws are unenforced or under-enforced, and traffickers routinely skirt the law.
In “Amazing Grace,” the film about Wilberforce’s fight to end an institution, a former slave talks about the brutal practice of branding slaves with the same hot irons used to mark cattle. “Branding lets you know you no longer belong to God,” he says, “but to a man.”
When I tell stories of kids I’ve met, I get one of two reactions: “I don’t want to know” or “How can I help?”
To the first group, my response is that, yes, child trafficking is overwhelming, and the stories can be painful, but unless we bring them to light, we have no hope of stopping it. The other reaction seems a lot harder to address. Unless you can hop on a plane and rescue kids, or counsel them, or comfort them, what can you — one person — do to stop a worldwide horror that by its very nature operates underground and in darkness?
The answer is just what you’re doing: not turning away, not turning the page. Being aware of what is happening in the dark and disgusting world of child trafficking is the first step you can take to end it.
Awareness is not the only answer, but it is part of the answer. In countries like Thailand, where it was once not polite to talk about issues such as this, the rate of trafficking has gone down dramatically as schools now teach awareness programs to children. It doesn’t touch every child, especially those from ethnic minority groups who are still greatly at risk, but it’s helping.
You may never meet a victim, but you can become aware of what she endures and speak out on her behalf. Google “child trafficking” and read about organizations that work to end trafficking.
Like other forms of slavery and like the eradication of entire groups of people, child trafficking feeds on silence and ignorance. Wilberforce was one person who stood against many — and brought down an institution without a shot being fired. Let’s not be guilty of perpetrating this present form of slavery by being silent or ignorant.
This story was written for “Seeds for the Parish” by Diana Scimone (firstname.lastname@example.org) president of PawPaw’s Pals, Inc., an international relief agency helping children in disaster and crisis situations around the world.
National Council of Churches Women’s Ministries is actively fighting human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Learn more and get new resources: http://www.ncccusa.org/womensministry/humantrafficking2.html