SEATTLE, Washington– There are 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year to work as labor and sex slaves according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2007 report. Most of the world’s slaves are from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) and the reason is poverty.
The connection between poverty and human trafficking is often bridged by child and forced marriages. Marrying off a daughter young can appeal to impoverished families for a number of reasons: it eliminates one hungry mouth, young girls aren’t expected to have large dowries, so the younger she gets married the less strain there is on the family and parents feel assured that their daughters will be provided for by marrying someone older.
The devastating reality is that many of these young marriages are just a pretext to obtain poor, uneducated girls who will then be sold and trafficked into slavery. Sometimes even if the marriage is honest on the part of the groom, the young bride will run away or in some other way enrage her husband so that he decides to rid himself of her by trading her in for cash.
The real criminal behind this scenario isn’t the trafficker – they are often just parents with hungry kids and no other job prospects – but rather the economic status of a region. Sometimes girls enter willingly into the human slave market, even when they know what awaits them, because they would rather take their chances than face the certain starvation and ruin of absolute poverty.
The Swedish Department for Global Development wrote in its 2003 report that “[p]eople become the victims of human traffickers mainly due to inequitable resource allocation and the absence of viable sources of income.”
The Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons (ITEMP) identifies poverty as the root cause of international human trafficking, and according to the International Rewards Center, every $1,000 reduction in a country’s GDP makes that country 12% more likely to be a source for international human trafficking victims.
Labor has become even less profitable than it was in the past so that agricultural land owners can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage. In an attempt to bring more money into the family, women and young girls join the job market – but since they aren’t typically hired for agricultural work, they are restricted to household work, sales and informal service jobs where they often work in near-slave conditions working long hours for almost no money and no job security.
“Social security schemes are either lacking or do not reach the poorest, most disadvantaged sections of the community,” writes the 2003 Swedish DGD. “The shortage of adequate, free schooling is particularly detrimental to young girls,” because without the ability to read, write and compute basic math a girl’s life is restricted almost entirely to the home where she is at the mercy of her father or husband.
Fulbright scholar Annjanette Rosga, who conducted research on child trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina that was later published by UNICEF and Save the Children Norway, says “[t]he global sex trade is as much a product of everyday people struggling to survive in dire economic straits as it is an organized crime problem. Attacking the crime and not the poverty is treating the symptom but not the disease.”
Fighting poverty is about more than providing clean drinking water – it’s about providing a future, providing options for a community. When a family has enough to eat they don’t sell their children or marry them off when they’re still underage. When girls are educated they can contribute more to their families than sex and babies, and they hold a higher value.
Unfortunately there will always be people in the world who are willing to take advantage of desperate circumstances, because by definition desperate circumstances leave few options. But by alleviating the most impoverished, the most illiterate, the most starved regions of the world we can minimize the number of opportunities for violence and imprisonment.