-Hannah Stump, former PJC Intern
Content Warning: Sexual assault, abuse.
Though slavery’s existence precedes written records, it is not a thing of the past. It is a dehumanizing practice still prevalent in societies across the world today, and most often exists as forced marriage, forced labor, and forced sexual exploitation. As of 2016, there were approximately 40.3 million people enslaved worldwide, and “71% of overall victims of modern slavery — nearly 30 million — are estimated to be women and girls.” (1)
Why is it that women and girls are disproportionately enslaved? The simple answer is that many societies in both the Global North and South are socially and systematically patriarchal. Women across the world, regardless of class or age, face discrimination based on their gender– treated as second class citizens in comparison to their male counterparts; this is incredibly disempowering.
From a young age, girls are victims of oppression that existed for thousands of years before they were born. Girls are less likely to receive a secondary education than boys. Due to a lack of education and autonomy, it is harder to get a well-paying job (or any job in some cases) which in turn makes financial self-sufficiency and independence nearly impossible. This forces women to work in factories, on farms, and in private residences where sexual assault, violence, and harassment are commonplace. This push into non-consensual labor can be state-imposed, family-imposed, or happen as a result of trafficking.
The Tharu community of Nepal is an example of how a patriarchal society and lack of opportunity impels girls as young as 6 into forced domestic servitude. They began as rural farmers living in an area undesirable to outsiders because of its high concentration of malaria – to which they had built up immunity after living off the land for centuries. Settlers moved in once antimalarial drugs became available, forcing the Tharu to work for them on their own stolen land. This system and these indebted Tharu became known as “Kamaiya”. Kamaiya persisted for generations but was officially abolished in Nepal in 2000.
Though the Tharu were free, they had no land and no education, forcing them into extreme poverty. At this point, the modern “Kamlari” system began. Families sold their young daughters for the equivalent of $75 to wealthy landowners in villages and cities across Nepal to work as domestic servants. The young girls would cook, clean, and care for the landowners’ children. They did not receive any sort of formal schooling. They were stripped of their childhood and their most basic human rights. They were victims of rape and violence. Their contracts would be renewed year after year, with no way out. Kamlari became legally prohibited in 2013, with promises of repercussions. To this day, few have been reprimanded and the practice carries on, now just shrouded in secrecy.
The servitude forced upon Tharu women is just one form of modern slavery that is happening across the world today. Garment factories in Brazil employ upwards of 380,000 Bolivians (predominantly women and migrants). They are brought by traffickers and placed in sewing shops with no “minimum wage requirements, established working hours, or use of contracts.” (2) The traffickers withhold their identification cards and the migrant women rarely speak Portuguese, which makes it impossible to escape in hopes of a better life.
The San Francisco Bay Area in California has become a hotspot for sex trafficking. There are three major international airports within an hour of the city and many ethnic districts, so many people inaccurately assume that all trafficking victims are brought from faraway countries. In actuality, many victims are domestic. Pimps seek out vulnerable women and girls, usually, ones who are “from a broken family or [are] struggling with a mental illness such as depression” (3) and manipulate them into sex work. The girls are gaslit by their pimps into thinking that their families will no longer love them if they escape or that they will be arrested if they call the police.
Additionally, 24.9 of the 40.3 million enslaved worldwide are in forced marriage. In some countries, girls are married off as young as 10. They lose their sexual freedom, and will typically provide unpaid services like cooking and cleaning under the guise of being a good wife.
Slavery continues to exist today in every corner of the world, and women are still disproportionately affected. They need our support. These are some organizations doing incredible work to give women and girls the life they deserve: The Nepal Youth Foundation, Americans for Immigrant Justice, Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, and 100x Development Foundation. Dig around your community to find more; there are thousands dedicated to liberating women worldwide.
- Future for women – freedom
- Modern Slavery and Women’s Economic Empowerment
- The Bay Area’s hidden identity as a sex trafficking capital