Slavery and Its Definition
Jean Allain and Kevin Bales
The Bellagio–Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery
The Scourge of Slavery: The Contemporary Reality of an International Human Rights Challenge
David K. Androff
Absolving the State: The Trafficking–Slavery Metaphor
Julia O’Connell Davidson
Rethinking Trafficking: Patriarchy, Poverty, and Private Wrongs in India
Alison Brysk and Aditee Maskey
Children Trafficked to the United States: Myths and Realities
Elzbieta M. Gozdziak
Debt-Bondage Slavery in India
The Many Faces of Slavery: The Example of Domestic Work
Child Domestic Workers: Protected Persons or Modern-Day Slaves?
Forcing Children to Bear Arms: A Contemporary Form of Slavery
Michael G. Wessells
Abused Migrant Women in the United States: Progress, Challenges and Recommendations
Gabriela Wasileski and Mark J. Miller
Repairing Past Injustice: Remarks on the Politics of Reparations for Slavery in the United States
Libya: The Road to Regime Change
Volume 14 ● Number 2 ● Summer/Autumn 2012—Slavery Today
Rethinking Trafficking: Patriarchy, Poverty, and Private Wrongs in India
Contemporary slavery, including human trafficking, is best understood as a particular form of human rights abuse by non-governmental perpetrators—“private wrongs” in which the state fails to protect its citizens and/or outsources its authority to abusive businesses, families, and criminals. While the enslavement of tens of millions of Africans in the Americas was state-sanctioned and sometimes state-sponsored, modern slavery operates in the gaps of governance: in rural backwaters, failed states, and the freefall of illicit migration. The victims of most current forms of exploitation are second-class citizens and “disposable people”—women, children, outcastes, and the marginalised poor.2 Contemporary slavery is a predatory strategy of commodification of fellow human beings in a privatising world. In this “race to the bottom”, traditional inequities and stigmas are brands, signalling who can be exploited and how. Women are especially vulnerable to the sex trade—but they are also vulnerable to exploitation in the “maid trade”, and any other traditional role where domestic disempowerment meets globalised displacement.
Globalisation creates “people out of place” who are unable to enjoy the resources of citizenship, whether or not they cross borders. Since capital is mobile but labour is fixed in place, those who cross borders become illegal migrants denied the protection of sending or host states, and vulnerable to all forms of abuse by smugglers, employers, and governments. On the other hand, those who stay at home are often displaced by globalising forces from their former productive niche, traditional community relations, or physical location within the country. In most of the developing world, people who are unemployed, landless, work in the informal sector, single mothers, street children, rural–urban migrants, and ethnic minorities are also all second-class citizens subject to exploitation and enslavement.3
Anti-trafficking policies are based on an assumption of free individual women, or parents on behalf of children, who are coerced or egregiously misled to be smuggled across borders, and then continuously pressured and abused to engage in sex work. It is assumed that such women would not engage voluntarily in sex work, that other employment options do not exist or are not exploitative. The coercive model of trafficking evades a deeper analysis of globalisation’s structural pressures on decision-making in households, and of the social delegation of authority over women to households rather than state authorities in a kind of embedded second-class citizenship.
First, anti-trafficking policies framed to protect “innocent” women from sexual slavery ignore or slight prior sex workers, or other women who migrate voluntarily to engage in sex work but are subsequently exploited—often the most vulnerable populations. Second, international policy, and especially American policy, focuses disproportionately on culturally recognisable European victims of East–West traffic, when the vast majority of victims are inter-regional or within borders in the global South. Third, policies often aim to stop commercial sex rather than the violence, exploitation and other harms associated with it—and with other forms of labour and migration. Lastly, this perspective often inspires a response of rescue rather than empowerment of victims, often followed by a return to the unrecognised abuses that began in the home community.
The international abuse of women grows from pre-existing domestic practices of commodification of female reproductive labour, such as prostitution, forced marriage, and domestic service, and from the patriarchal control of women’s movement, education, and employment—enforced by gendered violence. The supply-side factor of gender inequity is a better predictor of exploitative trafficking within and across borders than either general problems of globalisation or prostitution policy, and shows when and where women will be especially vulnerable to sexual forms of contemporary slavery. Yet most of the debate focuses on generic problems of poverty and the legal treatment of prostitution, without incorporating specific attention to power and patriarchy.
Contemporary Slavery in South Asia
Asia has a long history of the exploitation of labour, indentured servitude, and unpaid labour. Contemporary slavery in South Asia can be attributed to traditions of debt bondage in the agricultural sector, of society’s tolerance of sexual exploitation, of girls being “offered” to religious deities via clergy and worshippers, and to the entrenched caste system that compels lower-caste groups to perform hard physical labour in slavery-like conditions, often over generations. Advocacy groups estimate that up to sixty-five million people are in bondage in India alone. A study commissioned by India’s National Commission for Women found that 62 per cent of women in commercial sex work were from scheduled (untouchable) castes.4 Inter-generational prostitution also keeps successive generations of its victims in the sex trade.
According to ILO estimates, there are 21.6 million child labourers aged from five to fourteen years in South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). India, with an estimated 12.6 million working children, has the third-largest labour force of children in the world. The Indian agricultural sector, including plantations and commercial farms, employs 80 per cent of India’s child workers and 70 per cent of working children globally.5 South Asian child labourers are paid as children but employed as adults, often working twelve to fourteen hours a day with minimal or no pay. Besides debt bondage and prostitution, child labour includes a host of hazardous occupations in the manufacturing and service sectors—from making hand-knotted carpets to toiling in stone quarries and brick kilns. Children are also employed as beggars, trash pickers, domestic servants and in the hotel and restaurant industry. Children, particularly boys, have been trafficked to the Middle East for domestic servitude, camel racing and seasonal begging during major religious events.6 During the armed conflicts in Nepal and Sri Lanka, children were recruited to carry out high-risk military tasks as well as to act as porters, pamphleteers and informers.
Globalisation has resulted in South Asia’s becoming a low-cost, labour-intensive production centre. Poverty, coupled with landlessness, loss of traditional livelihood options, lack of education and market skills, ethnic, caste and gender discrimination, regional conflicts, natural disasters, and high levels of corruption, forces people to migrate to urban centres or abroad. Migration policies frequently exclude the unskilled and the uneducated, mostly women, who out of desperation seek alternative and often illegal means of crossing borders.7 South Asia has a history of seasonal migration for employment purposes. Because of the culture of arranged marriages, girls and women often marry total strangers and migrate to places unknown to them. These migration patterns and routes are capitalised on by the traffickers, who might be family members and acquaintances, so that what starts as a harmless migration can rapidly turn into a situation of abuse and exploitation.
All forms of human trafficking exist in South Asia—prostitution, forced marriages, trafficking of children for adoption and organ transplants, begging, debt bondage, and hazardous labour in the agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors. Much of this is cross‑border trafficking in the guise of migration for employment. Bangladesh and Nepal are the major source countries, while India and Pakistan are source, transit and destination countries.
The Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific estimate that in recent years three hundred thousand Bangladeshi women have been trafficked to India, and two hundred thousand to Pakistan. Since India and Nepal have an open border policy, the majority of Nepalese cross-border victims end up in India. The ILO estimates that twelve thousand girls are trafficked annually to India for prostitution. Reports indicate that Pakistan is a transit country for Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia for bonded labour, including commercial sexual work. Sri Lanka is reported to be a common destination for paedophiles.
People are trafficked within each country, across national borders (such as from Bangladesh and Nepal to Pakistan and India), within the region (from South Asia to South-East Asia) and to other regions (such as the Middle East, Europe and the United States). Women who work as domestic help in the Middle East face a high level of physical and sexual abuse. There have been various reports that the passports of such women are seized once they reach their destinations, limiting their freedom to seek protection or leave the country.
Patriarchal traditions and gender inequity in India have resulted in the feminisation of poverty, exacerbating women’s vulnerability to labour and sexual exploitation. Three-quarters of Indian women are illiterate. Some 90 per cent of rural and 70 per cent of urban women are unskilled.8 Women’s poverty is more severe than men’s because of unequal access to land, productive resources, information, skills and education; female poverty is also exacerbated by forced marriages, domestic violence, workplace harassment, and by women’s bearing the primary responsibility for unpaid domestic and subsistence tasks. Indirect discrimination in access to food, care, medical treatment and education, and subjection to physical and sexual violence, have resulted in high mortality rates for girls and women. As home- and farm-based subsistence opportunities are on the decline, more and more women have had to leave their traditional spheres of life and migrate to urban centres or foreign countries to work as unskilled labourers. Being uneducated and unskilled, these women lack basic information about employee rights, let alone bargaining power, are often duped by fraudulent agencies and charged exorbitantly, and remain in bondage-like situations to pay off their recruitment debts.
Sexual Slavery in India
Surprisingly little international attention is paid to human trafficking in India, although that country represents one-sixth of the world’s population and is well-known to suffer other forms of contemporary slavery. One reason trafficking in India is relatively invisible is that it is mostly regional and domestic rather than North–South or East–West; this accords even greater importance to its study, since enslavement is often more harmful in lower-resource environments with weaker states. Another reason India’s trafficking is overlooked but especially salient is that India is a rapidly globalising democracy in which rising social inequality is increasing the “citizenship gap” between rights in theory and in practice for many marginalised groups—especially women. Even as the public sphere in India modernises, a panoply of patriarchal practices that disempower women persists and even deepens—from sex-selective abortion to dowry deaths—illustrating how private-sphere inequity fuels private wrongs. And, as in many developing-world democracies, in India corruption undermines mandated protection of female citizens and participation in international human rights responses to contemporary slavery.
India is a source, destination and transit country for men, women and children subjected to trafficking in persons, especially for forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.9 While much attention has been paid to cross-border trafficking for sexual exploitation, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs estimates that 90 per cent of sex trafficking in the country is internal, intra-state (from rural to urban centres) and inter-state (from poor to rich states). Globalisation and the economic boom have led to an increase in non-brothel-based sex work in India, particularly in hotels, bars and massage parlours. Structural and economic change in the agricultural sector has increased the proportion of casual workers. The casualisation of female labour increases women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation.10 Research by India’s National Human Rights Commission in the south of the country, where there is a high level of trafficking, shows that girls from large and poor families in areas prone to drought and natural disaster are increasingly trafficked.11
Girls face multiple forms of discrimination in South Asia. As soon as a female child is born, parents worry about dowry. In the rural poor backwaters, girls have less access to nutrition, education and life skills. They are married off early, and considered the property of the husband’s family. On the pretext that no dowry need be paid, traffickers lure poor families to marry their daughters to total strangers in the Middle East. Female foeticide (sex-selective abortion) is a modern-day reality in India and has led to a fall in the female-to-male ratio in many states. Grooms who cannot find suitable brides in their community “import” brides from other states, sometimes through the forced marriage of minors.
In an action research led by the National Human Rights Commission in thirteen states of India, it was found that 71.8 per cent of survivors of sex trafficking had married when they were below eighteen years of age. A quarter of the married respondents had been sexually assaulted by persons other than their husbands (mostly by members of the extended family and neighbours). Some 41 per cent were abused when they were less than sixteen years of age, mostly by relatives, neighbours, school staff, and the police.12 Once sexual exploitation becomes public knowledge, then it is the victim who is a social outcast. A married daughter bearing the social stigma attached to rape or other forms of sexual violence is seldom welcomed back by the parents. In such cases, women move in order to escape oppression or stigmatisation, and become vulnerable to trafficking.
Traffickers are usually not strangers; a significant percentage of victims are trafficked by their own relatives (husbands, parents, in-laws, extended family members) and acquaintances. Most female traffickers “double up” as sex workers, and are themselves victims and ex-victims of commercial sexual exploitation.13 Female traffickers go back to their communities, flaunt their wealth, promise lucrative jobs or marriages and coerce others to join them.
Current policy responses in India take a crime rather than a harm focus. The stigma attached to trafficked victims is very high. Sex workers, even if they have the freedom to leave, do not do so as they have nowhere else to go. Whenever there are police raids on brothels, it is the sex workers who are arrested as the “accused”, and who are then bailed out by their brothel owners and taken back to work. Of the income from paid sex work, the brothel owners get the major part; the rest of the earnings have to be shared with agents and sometimes even with law enforcement officials. Around 61 per cent of the victims interviewed by India’s National Human Rights Commission revealed that they had no savings.14 These findings highlight the causal link between poverty, powerlessness and prostitution.
Those who do escape or secure greater intervention from government or non-governmental organisations are rescued from their immediate predicament rather than rehabilitated. Research shows that rehabilitation measures in India are not up to speed and that not all rescued victims receive rehabilitative services. Those rescued and taken to shelter homes have been critical of the quality of counselling and vocational training offered on site. Because of inadequate rehabilitation and reintegration measures, many rescued victims are “re-trafficked” into exploitative work.15 Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on reuniting victims with their families and reintegrating them in their own communities. Since research has shown that a significant number of victims are trafficked by family members or acquaintances, or leave voluntarily to escape abuse, oppression, or stigma in their communities, alternative reintegration options must be found for those who do not want to return to their places of origin.
Corruption is a major factor that perpetuates human trafficking in India. The study by the National Human Rights Commission showed that police figured regularly in the clienteles of the brothels surveyed, and that “free” sexual services were provided to police, politicians, legislators and traffickers in return for protection and to promote business.16 The poor are more vulnerable to weak governance and are at increased risk of being trafficked. Contributing factors include the absence of effective legislation and enforcement, of institutional structures in addressing human rights issues, and the exclusion of poor and disadvantaged groups (women, indigenous tribes, low castes) from basic social and economic services.17
Analysis of the patterns of trafficking in India suggests that we must rethink our approaches to contemporary slavery and sexual exploitation in South Asia—and consider how these patterns should influence interventions throughout the global South. With one of the highest levels of contemporary slavery in the world, South Asia has seen little regional co-ordination in this as in other policy areas. While the political will to protect its citizens has arguably increased in India, governmental concern is less visible in the neighbouring source countries—and like most host nations worldwide, they pay little attention to demand or to the gap between policy and practice.
First of all, the preponderance of regional and internal trafficking means even more emphasis should be put on tackling the root causes: poverty and patriarchy. Development and empowerment are clearly the best preventatives. India and its neighbours must enforce free and compulsory high-school education for girls and boys. Concerned international actors should implement income-generation schemes tailored to the changing socio-economic landscape of agrarian societies. Democratic states and rising civil societies can press local governance structures to monitor and account for human rights issues—including caste/ethnic/gender discrimination, domestic and sexual violence, early and forced marriages, dowry oppression, and rape and killing in the name of honour.
Since most of the cross-border trafficking stays within the region, and builds upon pre-existing patterns of labour migration and marital exchange, a far more effective way of confronting the problem than policing borders would be to increase migration rights and monitoring for women. In order to move women and girls out of second-class citizenship, governments must enforce free and compulsory birth registration, which is the only way to ensure legal and reliable identity documents and access to government services. Overall, the focus must shift from hindering migration to addressing human rights violations during migration. Orderly migration can be improved by including provisions for unskilled and uneducated migrant workers in existing migration policies, with simplified guidelines and procedures. Lastly, host countries should give special attention to migrant education to improve the bargaining power of unskilled migrant labour.
Finally, the corruption that is endemic throughout the region is particularly nefarious for the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Private wrongs thrive in decentralised, opaque environments, and only the collective capacity of the state can counter the multiple sources of powerlessness of “disposable people” within their own communities. Corruption in law enforcement is worse than corruption in economic development, because it robs citizens of security as well as resources. Corruption in trafficking is worse still, because it goes beyond tolerating illicit economic activity to embed local authority in the systematic exploitation of women and children. Since India is beginning to participate in international standard-setting, and to revise national legislation, enforcement is clearly the missing piece and the next step. Recent anti-corruption protests in South Asia are a promising beginning, empowering civil society to demand greater accountability for private wrongs.
2. See Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).
3. For the impact of globalisation on vulnerable groups, see Alison Brysk and Gershon Shafir, eds., People out of Place: Globalization and the Citizenship Gap (London and New York: Routledge Press, 2004).
4. National Commission for Women, A Report: Societal Violence on Women and Child Prostitution, 1995–96 (New Delhi: National Commission for Women, 1996).
5. Chandrika M. Kelso, “Child Labour and the Trafficking Industry in India”, in Global Trafficking in Women and Children, ed. Obi N. Ignatius Ebbe and Dilip K. Das (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press/Taylor and Francis, 2007), p. 68.
6. Sarasu Esther Thomas, Responses to Human Trafficking in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka: Legal and Policy Review (New Delhi: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011).
7. A. K. M. Masud Ali, “Treading along a Treacherous Trail: Research on Trafficking in Persons in South Asia”, in Global Survey of Research on Human Trafficking, ed. Frank Laczko and Elzbieta Gozdziak (Geneva: International Office for Migration, 2005).
8. Asian Development Bank, “Combating Trafficking of Women and Children in South Asia: Regional Synthesis Paper for Bangladesh, India, and Nepal”, Manila, Philippines, April 2003.
9. US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 (Washington, D.C.: State Department, June 2011).
10. Asian Development Bank, “Combating Trafficking of Women and Children in South Asia”.
11. P. M. Nair and Sankar Sen, Trafficking in Women and Children in India (New Delhi: Orient Longman for the National Human Rights Commission, India, 2005), p. 9.
12. Ibid., pp. 72–3.
13. Ibid., pp. 282–3.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
16. Ibid., p. 127.
17. Asian Development Bank, “Combating Trafficking of Women and Children in South Asia”.