New fight, old foe: Slavery

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Zach Hunter was only 12 years old when he became an abolitionist. During Black History Month three years ago, as he read about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, he thought he, too, would have fought against slavery if he'd lived back then. But to his astonishment, Zach found soon afterward that people are still held as slaves today.

"When I learned there were about 27 million slaves in the world, it blew me away," says the high school freshman from Atlanta. "I wondered what I could do."

He noticed loose change lying around the house, and a project was born. He formed Loose Change to Loosen Chains, and with the help of friends, collected some $10,000 to fight modern-day slavery.

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This year, Zach is part of a much broader antislavery initiative, serving as student spokesman for "The Amazing Change." Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, which was spurred by a young parliamentarian and reformer, William Wilberforce. A feature film on Wilberforce, "Amazing Grace," opens in US theaters nationwide on Feb. 23. The filmmakers are partnering with modern antislavery organizations to enlist students and others in a contemporary abolitionist movement. (See: www.theamazingchange.com).

For his part, Zach has penned a book, "Be the Change," and travels across the country to speak to young people at music festivals, schools, and churches.

"I tell them they can channel their passion into something that makes a difference," he says. "Small groups of people have changed things all through history."

Slavery is illegal everywhere in the world, yet it persists. Zach finds inspiration in the courage of Wilberforce, who kept fighting under difficult circumstances. The reformer spent 20 years collecting evidence of the crimes of Britain's slave trade. He introduced bills that were repeatedly rejected by parliament before the trade was finally ended in 1807.

The Amazing Change campaign encourages people to sign a petition to end modern-day slavery, donate to the cause, and learn how they can take an active part in the movement. A percentage of funds donated will help four nonprofit groups (Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, Rugmark, and Child Voice International) collect evidence, go to court to free people from current forms of slavery, and help former slaves establish a new life.

Last Sunday, churches in all 50 states and several countries participated in "Amazing Grace Sunday." Praying together for freedom, the congregations also joined in singing the well-known hymn written by John Newton, a former slave trader.

Newton wrote the beloved "Amazing Grace" around 1770 after a Christian conversion led him into the ministry; he was once Wilberforce's pastor.

While slavery takes different forms today, the impact remains devastating to lives around the globe, according to UN and US government statistics. An estimated 300,000 children have been forced to serve as child soldiers in more than 30 conflicts. Each year, human trafficking for sexual servitude or forced labor moves 800,000 people across international borders, including some 17,500 foreigners trafficked into the United States. Some 200,000 people are considered to live enslaved in the US.

The number of bonded slaves – men, women, and children who toil in agriculture or industries – has reached an estimated 20 million worldwide, says Free the Slaves.

While total figures for slaves vary (the International Labor Organization has used 12.3 million for forced labor and sexual servitude), the 27 million estimate Zach Hunter cites is widely supported.

Remarkably, many slaves are in the public eye, yet invisible. For example, Kim, a young teen from a family of Tibetan exiles, was surreptitiously sold by a relative to an American minister traveling in India. He brought her back to a rural town in Massachusetts in 1985, where she became his sex slave and household servant. The pastor told Kim her family would be thrown in jail if she told anyone, so while she attended school, she kept the secret for five years. Only when Kim learned her cousins were to share the same fate did she go to the police.

Kim's poignant story is told in "Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It," by David Batstone, one of three new books associated with the Amazing Change campaign.

A professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Batstone traveled to five continents last year to investigate the workings of modern slavery, including going undercover to gather evidence. He defines slavery as "forcing someone else's labor without compensation, and using violence to keep them in their position."

Batstone's interest in the subject was first ignited, he says in an interview, when his favorite Indian restaurant, where he and his wife ate regularly, figured in an exposé by the San Francisco Chronicle. The story revealed that the young waitresses at the restaurant had been brought from India against their will and were also forced to perform sexual favors. The restaurant owner had trafficked in hundreds of young girls and boys.

"In the US, 47 percent of trafficking is in the commercial sex business," Batstone adds. The women are brought mostly from China, Mexico, and southeast Asia.

On his journeys, Batstone found that the most prevalent form of slavery globally is in agriculture, involving labor in rice mills or on plantations, as well as rock quarries and brick kilns. In some cases, people borrow small amounts of money from a local landowner to buy food or pay for a wedding, and the lender begins adding egregious levels of interest, requiring work until it's paid off.

"In India, I met a family of four generations of women," Batstone says, "great-grandmother to daughter, who had spent their entire lives under obligation to a landowner for a loan the great-grandfather had taken out for the equivalent of $10. This is illegal, but hardly enforced."

While exploring this dark side of the global economy, Batstone found a silver lining: "a rising tide of modern-day abolitionists who are building an underground railroad for the 21st century." So inspired was he by the efforts of many small, understaffed, and underfunded groups working to free people, that the focus of his book shifted to profiling these new abolitionists.

He decided to mount his own international advocacy and fundraising project, too: the "Not for Sale Campaign" (www.notforsalecampaign.org). The campaign enlists athletes, musicians, and others in "making whatever you love best an abolitionist activity."

Figure-skating star Brian Boitano, for instance, "has pledged to give $10 every time he does a triple loop," Batstone says. A "Concert to End Slavery" with top-notch artists has just been filmed in a Los Angeles recording studio, and a documentary related to the book will be ready for TV in March.

But more is needed than raising awareness and funds, Batstone says. "People who should be acting to stop slavery say they don't know where it is." So his students at the University of San Francisco have taken on the job: mapping slavery in the area – where it occurs in agriculture, the restaurant business, domestic servitude, etc. They are also creating a model for how to map slavery so that students and others could do the same in other cities.

"We'll take that report each year to the mayor's office, the chief of police, and the media, saying 'Here's where slavery can be found in our city,' " he says. "My students are unbelievably charged up."

Zach Hunter, too, is enthused about what young people can accomplish. "My vision is that my generation would be written about in the history books as a generation that really cared about others and brought about change," he says.

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