RI President K R Ravindran was “astounded” to discover at an international seminar on human trafficking, hosted jointly by The Carter Center and Rotarians Against Child Slavery at Atlanta in May, that “this beautiful, diverse, modern city, which will be home to our Rotary Convention two years from now — is, according to the US Department of Justice, the largest hub of trafficking in the US. More than 100,000 children are forced into sexual exploitation in this country every year; this number does not even include the adults.”
But this kind of news, as that of hundreds of thousands of children dying each year due to diarrhoeal diseases, rarely makes the headlines because such subjects are “difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant.”
Ravindran admitted that recently when he was asked to address a Rotary workshop in India to educate parents and teachers about how best to protect children from abuse and exploitation, he wondered what he would say as this wasn’t “something that happens in my country … child abuse is a Western problem.” But when he sought some background material and statistics from the organisers on child abuse in India and internationally, he was in for a shock. “I found that such abuse of children is neither a Western problem nor an Eastern problem. It is a human problem. And it is a much larger problem than I had realised.”
The same was true when he was invited to speak at the Atlanta meet. “I thought trafficking is something that happens in the brothels of seedy cities and the streets of red light areas. I never thought of it on the fishing boats of Indonesia, or the construction sites of Dubai. Still less did I think of it in terms of the migrant workers of Mexico, or Malaysia, or my own Sri Lanka.”
After this “eye-opening experience” of the all-pervasive nature of this menace, he was convinced that “it is our human responsibility not to tolerate it — not in our cities, not in our countries, and not in the businesses we deal with or the products we buy and use.” The first step in fighting it was to recognise the global nature of human trafficking, raise awareness in our own communities and, more important, end the notion that “trafficking is too shameful to even discuss.”
Many governments, led by the US, were increasingly recognising their responsibility to end human trafficking, but along with governments and law enforcement agencies, civil society would have to work to stop “something that we all know to be unacceptable. We need to stop the traffickers, we need to hold the criminals accountable, we need to have procedures in place so that victims know they will not be prosecuted for coming forward. We need businesses to know how their products are being produced, at every step of the supply chain, to ensure that slave labour is never involved — not only because ethics and the law demand it, but because their customers demand it.”
Focus on prevention
Ravindran said that while detection and severe punishment were necessary, prevention was the best; stopping it before it begins. Hitting the right note on the poignant and painful condition and genesis of migrant workers from developing countries, he said: “If you look at the Burmese men who have been trafficked onto fishing boats in Thailand, these are men who came to Thailand looking for economic opportunity. They came looking to work hard, to earn money, to return home to their families. And they were caught in the net of trafficking, and sold as slaves. The Filipino women who come to Doha to work in hotels, the Nepalese men who come to build skyscrapers, answering ads promising free transit and good pay or the Filipino women who come to New York to work as manicurists — they go because they have children at home they cannot feed, or parents who need medical care, or because they have no money to marry.”
Most of these workers were “trapped by contracts they cannot read, laws they do not understand, employers who take away their passports and their most basic human rights. The women and girls in Syria, who are snatched from the markets and sold as prostitutes; the North Korean women in China, sold as brides — all of these are the face of human trafficking today. It happens because of poverty. Because of illiteracy. Because of war.”
These forces that drive trafficking are the very evils that Rotary continues to fight with its work. “We work to build healthier, more prosperous communities where young people have hope for a better future, right where they are. By making education available to the poorest children, boys and girls alike — whether it means building toilet blocks in rural Indian schools, or supplying school children with pencils and uniforms in Africa. We support economic growth, through vocational training, through micro-loans, through mentoring. And we help communities stay healthy, by training midwives, equipping clinics, and immunising children. 1.2 million Rotarians, all over the world, are doing all of that and more — every hour of every day.”
During its 110-year history, Rotary had learnt that to do something big — whether building a hospital, or ending polio, or stopping human trafficking — the first thing is to get the right partners. Fighting against human trafficking was an area outside Rotary’s core areas of focus, and hence the Rotarian Action Group Against Child Slavery was working in partnership with other specialised groups to take on this challenge, he added.
Distinguished participants at the meet included former US President Jimmy Carter, former US Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor, Senators and representatives from law enforcement and anti-human trafficking and other advocacy groups.
Participants shared knowledge and resources and developed real-time solutions such as the establishment of national and international networks to compare proven results that reduce demand for sex workers.
The meeting discussed how despite international law and the laws of 134 countries criminalising it, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world. A 2012 International Labour Organisation study has found that at least 20.9 million adults and children have been bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced or bonded labour. A UN study says that nearly 80 per cent of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation.