Lord, help us to grow in your ways, to be upright and faithful in following your paths so that we will reach eternal happiness with you. Amen.
Slavery: Well over 100 years after the American Civil War ended, this terrible injustice is in the news again. Here are some very recent examples:
- On March 26 the United Nations, working with a large group of governments and social relief organizations, launched the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.
- In the last two months the state Legislatures of Virginia and Maryland voted to approve a public apology expressing the states’ “profound regret” for their role in slavery.
- In February, Amazing Grace, the movie biography of anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce, opened in movie theaters across the country. For many viewers, it was the first time they had ever heard the name of the man responsible for abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain and its colonies in 1807, well before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
So why all this discussion now? Isn’t slavery a dead issue? Ask a young boy named Nizam. He lives with his elderly great-uncle in a small and poor village in northern India. One day, a woman slave-broker approached Nizam and offered him sweets and promises of a better life. Before he knew what was happening, Nizam found himself being transported with other children ages 8 through 14 to work at a rug-weaving job. Once he arrived at the workplace, Nizam was forced to work 12 to 15 hours a day, locked in, fed only what was necessary to keep him alive, and kept in constant fear of the consequences if he tried to escape, and not being paid fairly. His great-uncle had no idea where he had gone. He contacted local police but Nizam was not heard from for two years. Finally his great-uncle heard from the Bal Vikas Ashram, a Catholic center that specializes in rescuing children who have been forced into slave labor. During 2002, the Ashram carried out 10 raids in this area and freed 78 child captives. Nizam was among those freed. After being freed, Nizam stayed for a while at the Catholic center, where he returned to school and began to learn the business of tailoring. He has also learned that children too have human rights and dignity. They cannot be forced into slavery and denied the education every child needs today. Nizam is now back with his family.
More Slaves Today than Ever Before in History
Nizam’s situation, unfortunately, is far from unique. Some official estimates say that 27 million people live in slavery worldwide today. Ten million are in India alone. In fact, there are more people in slavery today — in 2007 — than in any time in recorded history! Slavery today, usually called “human trafficking,” refers to the buying and selling of human beings (including children) for the profit of other people. Victims of trafficking are usually recruited with promises, transported to another place, and then exploited. Oftentimes, victims are threatened with harm either to themselves or to their families if they try to run away. Typically they have no money, no official papers, and do not speak the local language. Most of the victims of trafficking are women or girls, many of whom are forced into slave labor, prostitution, or forced marriages.
The Profile of the Slavery Today
Debt slavery (Also called bonded labor): occurs when someone takes a loan of money (often in a family emergency) in exchange for a guarantee to work for a period of time. The work is for long hours, every day, but the loan takes years to pay off or can never be paid off entirely. This is a common form of slavery in India.
- Early/forced marriage: women and girls married without their consent and forced into lives of slavery.
- Forced labor: Victims are offered paying jobs and then put into conditions of slavery instead.
- Child labor: Children 8-17 are forced to work 12- to 18-hour days with little or no compensation.
- Sex slavery: Unfortunately, this is the most common form of slavery today. The victims are sold into prostitution. The victims are often young girls aged 14-18. Today’s culture of impurity and sexual obsession has created an atmosphere where this type of abuse is growing.
- Combatant slavery: The victims, often children, are forced into an army and made to kill.
Why would anyone put themselves at risk of becoming a trafficking victim? The main reasons are:
- false and deceptive promises by trafficking “brokers”;
- poverty and lack of any other available jobs;
- the hope for finding a better standard of living elsewhere;
- civil wars or armed conflict in the home country.
And who would want to keep human beings — including children — in such bad conditions? Answer: persons who want to exploit other people in order to get money. Traffickers are usually breaking the laws of one or more countries when they do business. But governments do not prosecute these exploiters very vigorously, sometimes letting them off with a “slap on the wrist.”
Who’s Working to Stop Slavery Today?
Thankfully, there are organizations working to publicize this growing tragedy and to give a voice to the voiceless. As mentioned above, the United Nations has begun a highly visible campaign to end human trafficking and slavery. First, the U.N. wants to raise public awareness of the problem. It also would like to encourage collaboration among different groups already working in different countries. The U.N. has also created a legal document called a protocol, an agreement that 120 countries have signed, pledging to eliminate this exploitative activity. But these governments have not done much thus far to actually implement the agreement.
Another organization that is working to overcome modern slavery is the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II denounced the crime of human exploitation many times. Pope Benedict XVI has also condemned human trafficking repeatedly. Moreover, the Holy See (or the Vatican) has sponsored several international conferences in recent years on the problem of human trafficking.
The Power of One
One remarkable individual working within the Church on this issue is Poor Clare Sister Eugenia Bonetti. Since 1991 she has dedicated her efforts toward rescuing “street women” in Italy. Many of the women and girls she works with are from foreign countries. Sister Eugenia also coordinates the work of many other nuns who help her in this project. The U.S. State Department recognized Sister Eugenia as one of six Heroes Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery in their annual report on the subject. Sister Eugenia and the Poor Clare Missionaries show great fortitude in taking risks to help these young women get away from their captors. They go out into the streets at night to meet with the young girls and persuade them that help is available. They offer the girls escape and shelter at their convents. Sister Bonetti’s organization has shown great resourcefulness in helping some 5,000 get certificates to stay and work at decent jobs in Italy. Even though Sister Eugenia runs the risk of retaliation from the women’s exploiters, she says, “I have never worried about my security. My life has been given totally.”
What can we do to stop human trafficking?
Some products (such as rugs) are produced with a certification that identifies them as child labor-free goods, which means that buying them does not support the trafficking industry. We can choose to buy products made without child labor, thus not creating additional demand for child slavery. We can also support effective non-governmental organizations that are already focusing their efforts to end slavery. Examples are found at freetheslaves.net, rugmark.org, and Catholic Relief Services (crs.org). An initiative that has come out of the making of the movie Amazing Grace is the “Amazing Change” campaign (theamazingchange.com), a coalition of several different groups working toward abolishing modern-day slavery. We can also write to our congressmen expressing our concern for human trafficking, and asking these legislators to effectively address the issue. U.S. Sen. Paul Simon D-Ill., who died in 2003, spoke to the importance of reaching out to our elected officials. In speaking about the Rwanda genocide, Simon said “If every member of the House and Senate received 100 letters from people back home saying that we have to do something about Rwanda, when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response to the crisis would have been different.”
A very individual way we can help stop the slave trade today is by living the virtue of purity ourselves. As we have seen, sex slavery is the most common form of contemporary enslavement. It thrives in societies that promote a casual attitude to sex. The virtue of purity teaches us to respect others and never see them as objects for our selfish enjoyment. Purity frees a person from enslavement to his or her passions. By being pure ourselves and promoting a culture of purity we can help create a society where human beings will no longer be seen as things to be exploited but as persons deserving our care and protection. There is much to be done to overcome modern slavery. There are initiatives to help rid the world of this evil. We should do our part, knowing that whatever we do to help our brothers and sisters we are doing to Christ.
But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones … would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone hung round his neck.
Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
2414 The Seventh Commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason — selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian — lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit.
2525 Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate. It requires of the communications media that their presentations show concern for respect and restraint. Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism and avoids entertainment inclined to voyeurism and illusion.
“In this context it is necessary to mention trafficking in human beings. … It becomes easy for the trafficker to offer his own ‘services’ to the victims, who often do not even vaguely suspect what awaits them. In some cases there are women and girls who are destined to be exploited almost like slaves in their work, and not infrequently in the sex industry too.”
(Benedict XVI, “Migration: A Sign of the Times” Oct. 28, 2005)
“Who can deny that the victims of this crime are often the poorest and most defenseless members of the human family, the ‘least’ of our brothers and sisters?”
(John Paul II, Letter to Archbishop Jean-Louis Taran, May 15, 2002)
Saints and Heroes
A Servant of Slaves and Captives
St. Peter Nolasco (1189-1256) Peter lived in the 1200s, a time when the Muslims controlled a good part of Spain and had made slaves or captives of many Christians. Peter was a very fevent Christian living in a free part of Spain. One day he had a vision of Mary, who asked him to start a group of men who would be dedicated to helping free captive Christians. With the help of some other men, Peter began this group. The members were totally dedicated to God and used their work and resources to pay the ransom of slaves and captives. Sometimes, these men would themselves become slaves to take the place of others. Peter personally freed more than 400 slaves and captives in his life. His community, called the Mercedarians, still exists in the Church today. They carry out spiritual work in parishes, schools, prisons, hospitals, and missions. They are also active in working to overcome human trafficking.
Christian Slave Who Helped Convert a Country
St. Nina (Died around 320)
Nina (Also called Nino and Christiana) was a Christian slave girl who was brought to the country of Georgia (north of Turkey). At that time, the people of Georgia were not yet Christians. Nina practiced her faith heroically in difficult circumstances. Once she was asked to pray over a child who was dying and the child recovered miraculously. Later, the queen of the country became gravely ill and asked Nina to pray for her also. Nina prayed and the queen recovered. The king was also saved from death by the girl’s prayers. This prompted the king and queen to learn more about Christianity and to send for Christian missionaries. Eventually the whole country embraced the Christian faith.
- What are some of the reasons people become caught in human slavery today?
- What types of slavery exist today?
- Trafficking is linked to many other social problems. Can you name some of them?
- Having an international protocol against human trafficking is a positive step. Why is it not enough? What other steps need to be taken by governments?
- What are some ways to help stop human trafficking? Should we start by focusing on the victims? Or on the criminals? Or on both?
- Someone said the greatest weapon against human trafficking is to have inquisitive neighbors. What do you think this means? Why would it help?
- What does our faith tell us about human trafficking? What Christian and human virtues are needed to help stop this evil?
- Human trafficking almost certainly occurs in the major city nearest to wherever you live. Are there social services groups in your area which deal with trafficking? Contact one of them and find out what kinds of problems they are aware of today in your community.
- Invite someone from Catholic Relief Services or from a local social services organization to come speak to your class on the problem of human trafficking.
- Imagine that you knew someone trapped in human trafficking. Write a letter a letter to this person, trying to give him or her comfort and reasons for hope.
- Imagine that you yourself were caught in some type of human slavery. Write a prayer to God in the name of human slaves.
- U.N. site on human trafficking
- The Amazing Change
- Catholic Relief Services
- Free the Slaves
- Book: Not for Sale, David Batstone (Harper Collins, 2007) True stories of the modern slave trade and strategies to fight it.
- Book: Be the Change, Zach Hunter (Zondervan, 2007). A teenage hero who organized other young people to work for the abolition of human trafficking.
- Renew America website (series on human trafficking):