The Red Light District of Mumbai, India, was crammed with cars, bicycles, mopeds, oxcarts, pedestrians,and children. Brightly colored fabrics hung from balconies, laundry lines, and open windows, not quite covering the drab walls. I was accompanied by two social workers and a loose following of men taking note of our presence. Beautiful and not-so-beautiful women, some who looked fourteen years old, some who looked thirty, draped themselves around the entrances to their brothels.
The social workers and I climbed carefully up a narrow stairwell to a residence hall about as wide as a balcony on a cheap hotel. Dogs that seemed drugged lay in our path. The smell of urine choked the air. I was introduced to Cybi, who pays 35 rupees (71 cents) a day for a bed in a small room with several other men, women, and children. She is required to have sex with at least ten clients a day. On festivals and holidays, the number is more likely to be twenty. When Cybi was a virgin, she might have commanded 10,000 rupees (US$204). But after that first customer, her price fell to 2,000 rupees (US$40). Now she is worth about 50 rupees (US$1) per sex act. The day we arrived, she found out that she had AIDS.
I spent three days with women like Cybi (all of whose names I have changed). By distributing condoms and providing some care for their children, the social workers of a local faith-based project try to develop enough trust to eventually help the women find a way out of prostitution. Though I was there to find ways to increase the aid the women will receive, much of the time I felt like an interloper amidst their misery.
Some women were from rural parts of India, brought to Mumbai by deception and coercion; others had been trafficked from Nepal and Bangladesh and forced into prostitution upon arrival. Each woman's story was unique, but there were common elements: deception, force, physical and sexual abuse, debt bondage, and apparent resignation to their fate.
Anita is a young Nepalese from a rural village. Her father was addicted to opium and her younger brother was sent away to school, leaving Anita to be the breadwinner for a severely impoverished family. One day a neighbor who had moved away returned, appearing relatively wealthy and successful. He proposed to Anita's father that he take Anita to the city where she could get a job in a market. He would make sure that part of her wages were sent to the family. Without hesitation the father agreed. But Anita's destination was not the city of Katmandu, it was Mumbai, and the market where she was to work traded in human beings.
On her journey by train and bus from Nepal to Mumbai, Anita was drugged and beaten. When she arrived at Victoria Station in Mumbai she was abandoned. Eventually, an Indian woman approached her and took her home. The woman bathed and fed her, clothed her, and sold her to a pimp for 20,000 rupees (US$408). The pimp told Anita that she owed him 40,000 rupees (US$816) to cover his expenses. He was, however, willing to provide her with a job, having sex with ten men a day. The cost of her living expenses would be added to her debt, and she could be grateful if the brothel owner insisted that customers use condoms. When Anita refused, the brothel owner locked her in a room and sent a series of men to rape and beat her until she gave in. Anita was 14.
It is common to encounter people who believe that prostitution is a "profession" that women choose for themselves. Even those who know that prostitution is almost always a last resort assume that women are driven to it by economic circumstances alone. But Anita, though poor, was by no means desperate enough to enter prostitution voluntarily. Nonetheless she became one of millions of victims of the global business of trafficking in persons—a business believed to generate revenue of US$7 billion per year.
The language of international law can be dry, but it is precise. "Trafficking" was defined by the United Nations in 2000 as:
the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction or fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of
payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
By that harrowing definition the UN estimates that two to four million children are trafficked annually around the world. The number of women is likely to be greater. Experts in trafficking classify the nations of the world as countries of origin, destination, or transit. Countries of origin are generally marked by economic and political instability. Russia and the surrounding newly independent states are among the current hot spots. Countries of destination tend to be relatively economically stable, including Australia and most of Western Europe. Such countries include the
The CIA believes that fifty thousand women and children are being trafficked into the United States annually. Most of them are believed to be forced into prostitution. The CIA has documented cases of Latvian women who have been trafficked into Chicago; Ukrainian women who have been trafficked into Los Angeles and Maryland; and Japanese women who have been trafficked to Hawaii. In many cases, these women are moved frequently to prevent traffickers from being detected, to provide clients with a "fresh" supply of women, and to prevent trafficked women from developing attachments to customers who might become sympathetic and report the case to authorities.
Women are trafficked into the United States from no less than forty-nine countries, and trafficking in both women and children is widespread within the United States as well, at the hands of perpetrators as various as pedophilia rings, sex tourists, and urban gangs. Up to 8,500 children were trafficked from other countries to the U.S. in 2000, according to an extensive survey by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. International trafficking in children is highly lucrative: a single child can earn a trafficker $30,000 or more.
The first case of trafficking prosecuted in the United States involved women as young as fourteen years old who were trafficked from Mexico into Florida in 1999. The victims were forced to prostitute themselves with as many as 130 men per week in a trailer park. Of the $25 charged to the "Johns," the women received $3. Threatened by rape and other physical abuse, the women were kept hostage by members of a trafficking ring known as "Cadena." One woman who tried to escape was kept in a closet for fifteen days. Others were forced to have abortions, the cost of which was added to their debt of $2,000 to $3,000 each.
The Cadena case was brought to light when one of the women escaped a party and ran to a neighbor's house. Sixteen men were convicted and are currently serving sentences ranging from two to six years, with one ringleader serving fifteen years in prison. Several other ringleaders fled before the trial. One million dollars of restitution was demanded. The women were placed in the care of service providers in Florida. These cases and statistics reveal the systemic nature of exploitation.
There is no one target for blame in the complex global networks that support the trafficking of women and children—no single root at which one can lay an axe. A single case of trafficking, like Anita's, can involve an impoverished community, a desperate family, unscrupulous or indifferent neighbors, corrupt border officials, hungry intermediaries, ruthless madams, brutal pimps, and more. But if it is difficult to say where the evil of trafficking begins, it is not at all difficult to say where it ends.
The entire web converges on an exploitative sexual act. Trafficking happens because there is a demand for the sexual abuse and commercial exploitation of women and children. Traffickers recognize the demand and are willing to provide the "supply." This fundamental fact is strangely neglected even among those who are willing to acknowledge the problem. Our culture has many stock phrases that brush aside the obvious: "Boys will be boys." "Prostitution is the world's oldest profession."
Our resignation to commericial exploitation is as close as the nearest tv set—any regular viewer of Friends is familiar with the male stars' casual references to pornographic movies. More tellingly, their female counterparts, in the script at least, find their "friends'" consumption of porn amusing rather than horrifying. In April 2001, Fast Company magazine examined the e-business model of Penthouse.com for clues it might provide struggling dot-coms. Playboy was ready to rescue the women of Enron by paying them for some nude photos. We have forgotten that it was ever strange for sex and commerce to be so casually intertwined.
But sex is not only connected with the black market and the stock market—it is all too frequently connected with the agents of our own government. Among the most common, and blatant, offenders are members of the U.S. military and international peacekeeping missions. For several years UN peacekeepers, including those on U.S. government contracts from companies like DynCorp, trafficked women and children as young as twelve years old from other parts of Eastern Europe to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ben Johnston, an aviation technician who was stationed in Bosnia with DynCorp, testified before Congress in April 2002 that DynCorp supervisors worked with Serbian organized crime rings to import girls for sexual servitude. Employees who raised questions were fired. David Lamb, a human rights investigator for the UN, testified in the same hearing that "the sex slave trade in Bosnia largely exists because of the UN peacekeeping operation"; he estimated that the sex trade in Bosnia received at least 30 percent of its revenue from UN and U.S. peacekeeping forces.
At The Vine, a gathering of young Christian leaders in February 2002, I shared some of these stories with a panel of others in human rights and humanitarian work. At the conclusion of the presentations a man in the audience raised his hand and addressed me with a story that I never expected to hear. "I became a Christian about four months ago," "Charles" said. "I was in the military, stationed in Korea, for a while. . . ." He didn't need to tell me more; I knew where he was going. He proceeded, "I used women in prostitution. I was a ring leader for everything you just talked about." His eyes began to well up with tears as he confessed where his own desires had led him. He was seeking reconciliation between his past and his new life in Jesus.
I admired Charles's honesty, and I marvel at the way God is changing his life. I also look back on my travels in India and wonder at the way we focused so singlemindedly on the women, the victims, and worked urgently on their behalf, without talking about the men, the perpetrators, and the global culture of commercialized sex that encourages them. Trafficking in persons is not a women's issue—it is a human issue. And it is not an issue that lends itself to a single "Christian response." The truth is that there are many necessary Christian responses.
Part of my response was to join the staff of the Protection Project, a legal human rights research institute that documents the extent of trafficking in persons and works for more effective laws and policies to prevent it. There are days when the story of a trafficked woman compels me to close the door or take a walk and let my tears roll. On those days it is difficult to keep a long view, but I believe God asks us to step into the mire, participating in the transformation that is possible from God's perspective.
The Protection Project is one of many encouraging developments in law and foreign policy. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the first legislation to address this issue in the U.S. The Department of State now has an office to Combat and Monitor the Trafficking in Persons, and five other federal agencies are equipped with resources to assist victims in the U.S. and abroad. Overseas, groups like the International Justice Mission intervene on behalf of victims, expose corruption in local law enforcement, and help generate political will to enforce new laws. In the U.S., the Youth Advocates Program International has launched a campaign to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
But there are other equally important responses. People of faith in the media and entertainment industries need to ask whether it is possible to create art forms and stories that aspire to a higher view of sex than as the satisfaction of desperate and inevitable urges. If they are to succeed, it will be because those of us who consume media and entertainment vote with our wallets and support such efforts. Women in the U.S. can use their increasing opportunities and voice to engage our culture on behalf of women whose voice is neither heard nor valued. Men of faith can walk alongside their colleagues, peers, and sons, demonstrating an alternative to the world's equation of sex and power.
Wherever we are, we are not far from the victims or the perpetrators of trafficking in persons. We are a country of destination; we are a culture of demand. Our only hope is to create an alternative culture, one that restores the beauty that is marred by exploitation. Our only failure would be to assume that nothing can change.