Modern Slavery Goes Beyond the Libya Slave Trade

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Written by Coby Jones

The auctioneer calls, “Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig. What am I bid, what am I bid?”

The auctioneer is selling a man, a slave, and that man’s bid goes for $400.

The CNN footage of the slave trade in Libya has shocked the world. For some, this is the first time the reality of modern day slavery has entered their conception of the world and confronting it is horrifying.

The reality is the slave trade is alive and well all over the world, not just in Libya. Human beings are bought and sold and forced into slavery every day. A report by the International Labour Office (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimates that 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern day slavery in 2016.

Though there is no legal definition of modern day slavery, it is a broad term used to cover many forms of coercion in human rights or labor standards. Forced labor, marriage, sexual exploitation and state-imposed labor are terms the ILO uses to categorize instances of slavery. The average cost of a slave is $90.

In the CNN video from Libya, the primary victims of the slave trade are men. While inhumane and urgent, this is not a typical example of how modern-day slavery takes place. Most often though, this process doesn’t happen on an auction block, there are no bids, and the victims are usually women. Seventy one percent of modern day slavery victims are women. Gender-based violence, conflict, and poverty all contribute to women becoming the primary victims of modern day slavery.

Gender-Based Violence

The UN Refugee Agency defines gender-based violence as any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. Gender-based violence and slavery are often closely linked, as violence is a defining characteristic of slavery, specifically sexual slavery and exploitation. This is most evident in the sex-trafficking and survivors of rape, sexual harassment and exploitation. In fact, the ILO reports that 99% of victims of sexual exploitation are women. Men certainly fall victim to sexual exploitation but women, are doubly victims of an unequal power dynamic. Gender-based violence is inherent in the violence perpetrated against women victims of slavery.

Conflict

Slavery is more easily perpetrated in countries that are affected by war and conflict. Slavery happens in all countries, but in countries where the rule of law is broken, there are many more opportunities for women to be forced into slavery. Reports of forced sexual slavery come from countries all around the world such as the Democratic Republic of Congo where rape and sexual violence have reached epidemic proportions and Iraq where ISIS has persecuted Yezidi women. Conflict and war also displaces men, women and children, forcing them to flee their homes in search of safety. Refugees and internally displaced persons are vulnerable to smugglers who buy and sell people, as was the case in the Libyan video. In the search for safety, women can be sold into domestic servitude and forced marriage under the disguise of an option for safety. For example, 24% of Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon are married because of the insecurity that continues to plague their families.

Poverty

Poverty creates vulnerability worldwide and hinders the education, health and rights of women. Often, poverty leads families to take extreme measures. In the Rohingya refugee camps, young girls are being sold into marriage. Marrying young girls means that families do not have the responsibility to feed that child or will use the money to sustain the family. Poverty also forces women to take on the majority of unpaid care work. These jobs fall outside the formal economy and are not regulated by laws or contracts. As a result, they often end up being forced labor or indentured servitude as women are not paid at all or are paid so little they are unable to escape or change their circumstances.

The tragedy of modern day slavery is that it is more insidious. You won’t see every slave in a video in CNN because the majority of modern day slaves are not auctioned publicly, but sold within their communities and families. This is a time to recognize that women are the primary victims of slavery globally. The video is a shocking reminder that slavery is a very real part of our global society, but we must go beyond the shock factor and tackle slavery in all its forms. Gender-based violence, conflict, and poverty create vulnerable situations for women around the world making slavery a terrifying reality for many.

Until the international community can come together and create a more equitable world for women and men, slavery will continue to be a part of our global society.

About the author: Coby Jones is a gender and development professional based in Washington, DC. She holds a Master’s Degree from The London School of Economics and is interested in gender specific development strategies. Follow her @JohnaCoby