Global slavery at a high, but reasons for hope
Modern-day abolitionists cite rising public attention to the problem, honor quiet heroes working to eradicate human bondage.
Some 27 million people labor as slaves – more than ever before – but those on the front lines of the antislavery movement see signs that human bondage is becoming increasingly unacceptable to the public and to a growing number of governments and businesses.Skip to next paragraph
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Often, the fight against slavery begins quietly and unheralded, in countries where people risk their lives to free other human beings. On Monday night, several of these modern-day abolitionists will be honored in Los Angeles as recipients of the inaugural Freedom Awards, presented by Free the Slaves, based in Washington, and the Templeton Foundation. Among them: a man from Ghana, a former child slave who now tries to prevent children from being sold by their parents; and two Brazilian groups that are harnessing market forces to take the profit out of slavery.
The awards come at a time of resurgence in human trafficking, even though slavery is illegal everywhere. Still, antislavery activists are encouraged that public awareness of the problem has spread in the past decade and that much is now known about how to eradicate slavery and what it will cost.
Moreover, the grass-roots, shoestring organizations that take the lead are beginning to win allies in government and industry. Brazil, for example, has a national plan that could be a model for other nations. The chocolate industry, for another, has become the first industry in history to invest resources to eliminate child and forced labor throughout its supply chain.
"It's a huge problem and we have a long way to go, but we're ahead of where I thought we would be," says Kevin Bales, cofounder of Free the Slaves and author of major studies and books on the issue.
In "Ending Slavery," a book that lays out his plan for achieving that goal, Dr. Bales presents research that indicates slavery could be eliminated over the next 25 years at a cost of only $11 billion.
"The cost of rescuing and rehabilitating [an individual] on average around the world only comes to about $500," he says in a phone interview. "While in rich countries it costs between $30,000 and $40,000, in rural India the cost can be just over $100."
The greatest challenge, many involved say, is not just freeing and restoring slaves to normal life, but rather deconstructing the systems that promote slavery and continually seek new victims.
From child slave to child protector
With a story epitomizing the resilience of the human spirit, James Kofi Annan of Ghana has made the remarkable journey from child slave to Barclay's Bank manager to founder of a program that is rescuing and preventing other children from suffering a similar fate.
Mr. Annan, the youngest of 12 children in a poverty-stricken family, was sold into slavery by his father when he was 6. For seven years, he worked 17 hours a day for fishermen.
"You aren't physically developed but have to do the hard labor, including all the risky diving to remove nets caught under boats" and other objects, he says, in a phone interview from Ghana. The enslaved children were fed poorly, physically and sexually abused, and bitten many times by snakes.
"I almost died once, and tried to escape several times but was caught," he recalls. At age 13, he got away when traveling to a funeral and found his way home, where "my mother was happy to receive me but my father was not."
The youngster yearned for an education. Learning some English from kindergartners' books, he enrolled himself in school. James turned out to be a star student – all the way through university. He got a job at Barclays in the city and eventually became a manager.
"But I realized I needed to do more, that I could contribute to protecting children," he says. In 2003 he formed an organization, Challenging Heights (www.challengingheights.org), in the district that is the main trafficking source for the fishing villages. He gave scholarships so that families could send children to the local school rather than sell them, but so many responded that he also set up a school, where 200 now attend.