Premila's parents sold their daughter for $18 on her 18th birthday. The buyer, from hundreds of miles away, said his Indian village had no good women to marry so he had to buy a wife. He took Premila as a concubine, then sold her into 10 grinding years of prostitution in two cities before rescuers returned the shattered woman to her home.
Premila is a modern slave, one of 27 million in the world today. Two hundred years ago, slaves were relatively scarce, expensive, and publicly owned by men holding title deeds to them. Today, they are plentiful and cheap like Premila-and much harder to spot.
This week Western countries celebrate the life of William Wilberforce, the pioneering abolitionist who labored 20 years to end the British slave trade, a fight he won on Feb. 23, 1807. Today's abolitionists are no less tenacious but find their work is different: Unlike in Wilberforce's time, slavery is illegal almost everywhere. Yet modern slavery flourishes because corrupt governments and law enforcers do not enforce the law.
The type of slavery Wilberforce and his American contemporaries knew was chattel slavery, in which one man owned another human being. According to the abolitionist group Free the Slaves, a slave in the American South in 1850 cost $40,000 in today's dollars. Today, the average cost of a slave is $90. A growing world population with millions of poor means an ample supply of potential slaves that has driven down the price.
That means slaveholders may not need to keep slaves as a long-term, generational investment: If a slave falls ill or otherwise cannot work, he or she is easy to replace.
What does slavery in 2007 look like? Chattel slavery is now relatively rare, largely limited to parts of Africa. Most of today's slaves-about 20 million-are in debt bondage, and mostly in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Others in places such as Southeast Asia and Brazil are contract laborers, lured by promises of well-paying jobs but forced to remain in harsh, menial conditions. Forced marriages enslave women and girls. Human trafficking, which ensnares 600,000 to 800,000 people a year, is the newest slave trade and the world's third-largest criminal business after drugs and arms dealing.
Bonded slavery works this way: A poor man takes a loan to pay for an emergency such as a funeral or family illness. He repays it with his labor, although unscrupulous lenders will not say for how long. Soon, as the original debt does not diminish, he realizes the lender has trapped him-and often his family-into working years or generations without pay.
Nagaraj was such a man. Desperate for work, he took a loan from a brick kiln owner who also bonded his wife and children. Nagaraj was devastated: At 12, he had worked with his parents for three years to pay off a debt, and now his family was in the same predicament.
Like his fellow slaves, Nagaraj and his family lived in a concrete cell at the brick factory. Six days a week, his family began work at 1 a.m., slogging 16 hours and working under the hot sun. He said he hated seeing his children work as hard as the adults and fall ill, growing up as another man's property. If workers complained or bolted, the kiln owner beat them savagely.
In 2004, the Virginia-based International Justice Mission (IJM) worked with local authorities to raid the kiln, freeing 138 people, including Nagaraj and his family. The kiln owner faces prosecution, while Nagaraj and his wife now run their own brick-making business and send their children to school.
Nagaraj's case is the kind IJM's workers see often in South Asia. As modern-day abolitionists, IJM hires lawyers and human-rights advocates to fill a crucial if ironic niche in fighting slavery: They work to ensure local officials enforce laws.
Despite ample laws at the local, national, and international level against bonded labor and other forms of slavery, each case involves a long and hard fight. Where police and authorities are corrupt, they let the powerful prey on the poor, says IJM senior vice president of interventions, Sharon Cohn: "If a young girl in a poor community is a victim of sexual assault, the rapist often has better connections with the police than the family will," she told WORLD.
In slave terms, if people come cheap, she says, then slaveholders should pay dearly in other ways-with jail time. Cohn says it takes grit and tenacity to pursue such prosecutions, where bonded labor easily blurs into sex trafficking. In IJM's biggest success, staff and Cambodian police raided brothels in Svay Pak. They rescued little girls between the ages of 5 and 10. The pedophiles caught running the brothels have received prison sentences.
Freeing slaves is one hurdle abolitionists have to clear, but keeping them free is another. Sivakasi is a city in India's southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, dubbed "Little Japan" for its matchstick, fireworks, and printing industries. Behind factory doors, however, are thousands of bonded child workers, making the city one of India's worst slavery hubs.
Most of India's bonded slaves are "untouchables"-Hinduism's outcasts now more charitably known as Dalits, or the "downtrodden." Dalits are desperately poor, and so most at risk for becoming enslaved.
The Dalit Freedom Network (DFN), an advocacy and charitable group, helps run a network of schools for Dalit children and, in Sivakasi, the students come from surrounding cottage factories.
They come, but not always regularly. Twelve-year-old Manjula is one such student. At first, her parents often pulled her from school to work in the factory, desperate for the extra cents a day she earned. Manjula began working with her parents at their local matchstick factory when she was 4.
The adults usually prepare the dangerous chemicals for the match heads-chlorates, phosphorus, and sulphur-and cut the sticks to size. The children work separately, typically in a 300-square-foot workroom lit dimly by a small, high window. The only ventilation is a concrete grille in the wall.
Though owners bribe local police to look away, the window's strategic placement prevents passersby from looking in, since India bans children under 14 from working. The children sit in rows, peering at their matchsticks. They dip each in sulfur, lay it to dry-often on a newspaper-then place it in a match box. Dip, dry, dip, dry, goes the work, for 12 hours or more at a stretch. If the children meet the quota, they get less than $1. More reliably, they get chronic bronchitis and allergic skin rashes.
Manjula worked seven years in a matchstick factory and now labors to breathe sometimes. The school's teachers cajoled her parents to let her stay in school, though her younger sister still has to work. Manjula had to start at kindergarten level, having never learned the alphabet or how to count.
When students like her miss class, teachers visit their parents and coax them into returning. More students skip school during the seasonal Hindu festivals, when demand for fireworks and matches is high. Sivakasi supplies three-quarters of India's matches and almost all its fireworks.
Persuasion on the benefits of education doesn't always work, said Albert Lael, national director of Dalit education for Operation Mercy Charitable Company, a partner with DFN. "The problem is [families] want their immediate needs met," he said. "[There's] a long way to go because they don't see the benefit they get in the long run." Many Dalits have been slaves so long, they think only like slaves. Ask them what they want to do with their future, and they often name menial jobs.
Lael has loftier hopes. A Dalit himself, he sees the children and remembers his grandfather's plight "was exactly like the kids in Sivakasi." Canadian missionaries educated his family, and Lael now holds an MBA. But pulling other Dalits alongside him can be hard labor with few compensations, too.
DFN schools know to compromise. The parents of one student, 11-year-old Shiva, let him attend for seven years only because he also continues to work. So when school is out at 3 p.m., he dips and packs matches for another 12 hours. Exhausted, he struggles to do his homework and keep up. But school is a haven: fresh air and playtime, sports and lessons.
For years Afghan women have suffered under a slave system actually sanctioned in customary law called baad. Under baad, a family offers a daughter in marriage as a debt payment or as restitution for a crime. Womankind, a British nonprofit, reported last year that between 60 percent and 80 percent of Afghan marriages are forced. More than half of Afghan women marry before age 16, and some as young as 6.
Two seasons of drought and a bad winter mean Afghan families have turned more desperate in the last two years, with reports of some selling their daughters to feed their other children. In Helmand Province, which produces most of Afghanistan's opium crop, some farmers cannot repay drug smugglers for loans to plant opium. So they turn to trading in women instead. Last November, the UN reports, a 25-year-old woman who had been traded for an opium debt turned an AK-47 on herself after suffering daily beatings from her husband.
Other bonded women who commit suicide, however, set themselves on fire. Medica Mondiale, a German group that helps women in conflict zones, found hundreds of cases of self-immolation in Afghanistan. Among some survivors, the group's workers found women lying in hospital scarred and screaming with pain.
Medica Mondiale project manager Ancil Adrian-Paul lived in Afghanistan for the last year and recounted one case: A 17-year-old girl survived self-immolation after her father married her to a man in Iran who beat her. Once a girl marries, she leaves her family. The saying goes, "The only way you come back is in a white coffin."
Desperate, the girl said a voice repeated to her, "Burn yourself, burn yourself." When she awoke, she could not remember if the burning had been deliberate or accidental. The girl needs six more operations to repair her ravaged body, but she was speaking publicly about her experience.
Modern-day abolitionists admit they can free only so many slaves at a time from such conditions. Groups like IJM asked WORLD that specific locations of their work not be disclosed, lest the reports jeopardize their workers. And slave victims, including those in this story, use aliases to protect their families and their own lives from retribution at the hands of contemporary slave traders.
Twenty-first-century slavery may stretch in directions Wilberforce never imagined, but its crucial trait has not changed: One person still controls another completely using coercion, force, and restrictions on all movement. Like Wilberforce, abolitionists today have a keen eye for freedom-and they see plenty of work left to do.
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Some subjects should be taught even when they don't fit handily into a classroom curriculum. This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century (Monarch Books, 2006) is a 175-page textbook, in a sense, featuring the history, the politics, the economics, and the present-day reality of forced servitude around the world. This slim volume is authored by two modern-day antislavery crusaders: Baroness Caroline Cox, member of the British House of Lords and WORLD's 2004 Daniel of the Year; and John Marks, a human-rights advocate, researcher, and-not surprisingly-an education expert who co-directed with Cox the Educational Research Trust. It joins a small but useful band of recent releases (see Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas) timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of William Wilberforce's victory against slavery in Britain's houses of Parliament.
Properly, then, Immoral Trade begins with Wilberforce: the extravagant party-goer and card-player at Cambridge who had little time for religion until a book on The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, attended by the influence of a godly aunt along with a friend, the former slave trader John Newton, led to his conversion to Christianity in 1784. An abolitionist meeting in 1787 transformed the young parliamentarian into a crusader. "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount the table," observed the famous biographer James Boswell upon hearing the 5-foot Wilberforce speak, "but as I listened, he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."
But slavery is not finished, and the authors move quickly to the focus of their current work, including detailed accounts of abductions and enslavement in Sudan, Uganda, and Burma-places to which Cox regularly journeys and where she focuses the attention and resources of her UK-based charity, HART (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust). Here students and other readers meet the "slave trains" of Sudan, as northern soldiers scoop up villagers on a munitions run to a southern garrison. They confront the horrors of the Ugandan civil war against the Lord's Resistance Army, a band that regularly inducted child soldiers by forcing them to kill and drink their victims' blood. And they read firsthand accounts of the "fashion and beauty show" ordered by the Burmese army after soldiers abducted over 50 women.
Immoral Trade does not gloss over white slave trade, tracing the length and breadth of the Atlantic slave system. But its abolition, Cox and Marks point out, lends hope to modern-day campaigns: "There have been many slaveries, but there has been only one abolition, which eventually shattered even the rooted and ramified slave systems of the Old World."