Emancipating Twenty-First-Century Slaves. The narrative begins in Forbesgunge, India, near the border of Nepal, where sex is one of few things for sale. The authors introduce us to Meena Hasina, a former trafficked prostitute, who strolls down a village path, completely relaxed while people glare at her. At nine, Meena was kidnapped, then forced into prostitution before reaching puberty. When at first she refused to submit to customers, the brothel owners beat her, drugged her, and raped her, until she finally stopped resisting. The brothel’s disciplinarian, the authors write, was a woman named Ainul who wouldn’t let Meena shed a tear without a beating.
Meena Hasina is an example of a former prostitute who remains steadfast and self-assured even when cultural scorn for sex work leaves her ostracized by her community. Standing up to misogyny and societal contempt, Meena shows, takes remarkable strength. When the authors describe her history as a prostitute, the fact that her brothel’s disciplinarian, Ainul, was female is evidence that injustices toward women aren’t committed only by men—women, too, can be direct perpetrators.
Kristof and WuDunn explain that India likely has more slaves in such conditions than any other country. Many who begin as slaves, they write, eventually choose to continue prostitution, as the stigma attached to their prostitution prevents other opportunities. The authors explain that it’s actually sexually conservative countries, such as India and Iran, where forced prostitution is most common. In these countries, visiting prostitutes is a way for repressed men to release sexual frustration. Societies turn a blind eye to this, the authors write, as long as the girls belong to lower classes.
The facts that Kristof and WuDunn relate here might be counterintuitive to some readers. By explaining that women forced into the sex trade may eventually choose to remain there, they upend the assumption that freed slaves will naturally pursue a different life. Likewise, by explaining that sexually conservative countries have the worst rates of sex slavery, they make clear that cultural taboos of sex do not protect women from rape or enslavement.
The text returns to Meena, who had two babies in captivity, Naina and Vivek, whom she was almost never allowed to see. Holding her children captive was a strategy to prevent Meena from running away, the authors report. Meena was headstrong, though, which made her the victim of regular beatings but also helped her resolve to escape. Once, desperate, she slipped away to ask the police for help—the police mocked her, but did make the brothel owners promise not to punish her. However, a neighbor soon reported to Meena the owners’ plans to murder her, so she ran away to the town of Forbesgunge. There, Ainul’s son found her and said she could live outside the brothel, if she continued to prostitute and give her earnings to the brothel owners. Even so, Ainul’s son would sometimes beat Meena as punishment, but one day a man named Kuduz intervened to defend her.
In Meena’s story, her brave obstinacy—her insistence on her own right to freedom—is ultimately what frees her from captivity. While female tenacity is often punished in cultures such as Meena’s, it can also be necessary to women’s emancipation. This is especially true in places where police corruption is rampant—like Srey Rath, Meena could not depend on law enforcement to protect her.
Kuduz and Meena soon fell in love, then married and had two children. But, Meena was still determined to recover her first two children. She returned to the brothel again and again, with no help from the police, and tried to rescue them, but couldn’t.
Meena’s saga shows the complications of women’s emancipation—her enslavement led her to have children whom she also wanted to rescue. Rarely is liberation, the authors show, as simple as leaving a brothel.
The authors write of how they have awakened to the prevalence of forced prostitution due to interviews with women like Meena. The common term “sex trafficking” is a misnomer, they explain, since trafficking refers to the transport of persons across international borders. The ugly phenomenon is better described, they say, as slavery. An estimated 12.3 million slaves work in all types of labor, and the authors estimate at least 3 million women and girls are enslaved in the sex trade. The authors contrast this number to the eighty thousand slaves trafficked in the 1780s, at the peak of the transatlantic slave trade. And, as in that slave trade, they emphasize, there are few restraints on the ways modern slave owners abuse their victims.
A popular notion in the United States is that slavery was an abominable institution that belongs to another century, but Kristof and WuDunn make clear that it is very much a part of the 21st century. Moreover, far more people are currently enslaved in the sex trade than were trafficked yearly in the transatlantic slave trade. This contrast lends perspective to the truly epidemic problem of modern slavery.
In addition, sex slavery is growing worse. The rise of capitalism and globalization contributed to the problem—for example, the authors write, now a girl from Nigeria might find herself enslaved in Italy. Further, the rise of AIDS creates a higher market for girls who are young and less likely to be infected.
It is important to keep in mind, the authors imply, that human rights do not always progress on an upward linear track—that is, while other humanitarian issues have improved in the past century, globalization and other forces have in fact led to more slavery.
The chapter returns to Meena’s children, Naina and Vivek, who had brutal upbringings with no schooling and were confused about who comprised their family. At twelve, Naina was bought clothes and a nose ring in preparation for a life of prostitution, despite the protests of her younger brother Vivek. Naina was raped by her first customer and soon began her career as a slave. Vivek later fled to the town he was told their mother lived, and the two had a beautiful reunion. But Meena remained determined to recover Naina, and approached an aid group called Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which, through connections, persuaded the police to raid the brothel and rescue Naina. At that point, Naina was morphine-addicted and emotionally broken, but was soon able to receive medical treatment.
Naina and Vivek’s stories underscore the broad effects of forced prostitution—their mother’s captivity led to the abused, neglected childhood of these two children. Meena’s daughter inherited the role of forced prostitute, demonstrating the trade’s cyclical nature. However, the fact that the aid group Apne Aap used their leverage to demand a police raid on the brothel shows the potential power of aid groups to intervene in otherwise evidently hopeless situations.
The family was reunited, but Meena, as a former prostitute, was still stigmatized by the community and in danger of retaliation from the brothel. Nonetheless, the authors write, she keeps her head high and now works as a community organizer to discourage prostitution. Apne Aap, with the help of American funding, started a local boarding school where Meena’s children were placed.
That Meena achieved, in the end, safety, stability and a united family, is further evidence that survivors like Meena can lead new lives after slavery, especially with the assistance of aid groups. Those very women can also become powerful advocates against slavery, helping to end the cycle that victimizes girls like Naina.
Fighting Slavery from Seattle. “People always ask how they can help,” the authors begin. The reality, they say, is that achieving change can pose a greater challenge than aid groups might lead one to believe, especially when donors want to hear a promise of success. Some efforts even backfire, such as a senator’s work in 1993 to discourage Bangladeshi sweatshops from hiring young girls—as a result, the authors write, thousands of unemployed girls ended up in brothels.
The authors anticipate that the reader may be asking his or herself, what I can do to help? But they implicitly discourage naïve underestimates of just how difficult helping is (although some aid groups might suggest otherwise). The authors strive to be clear-eyed about the difficulty of addressing women’s oppression, and in being so encourage the reader to have realistic expectations, too.
But, many aid efforts do work, and the authors give an example in the efforts of the expensive, private Overlake School in Washington state. The principal, Frank Grijalva, started a fundraising initiative led by students to sponsor the $13,000 construction of a school in Pailin, Cambodia, through the aid group American Assistance in Cambodia. Importantly, the group’s founder stresses girls’ education as the best way to prevent sex trafficking. When Overlake students traveled to Cambodia to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony, seeing the poverty of Pailin as well as its citizens’ enthusiasm, they realized Overlake needed to have an ongoing relationship with the new school. The result was an inspiring success, life-changing to both the students in Pailin and in Washington.
Because the book’s key argument is one of hope, they continue with a success story. Overlake’s sponsorship of the school may, through girls’ education, prevent grim fate of women like Meena from happening to girls in Pailin. While the primary goal of the sponsorship was, of course, to give opportunities to Cambodian students, it also awakened American students to their privilege and to the inequities worldwide, which can have profound effects as those students come of age and choose their life goals.
But, the authors write, such success stories come with complications. Take, for instance, one student at the Overlake School, Kun Sokkea, who slept in a room with her entire family and always wore the same shirt because it was the only one she owned. Financial pressures made her consider quitting school to work, so to address these pressures American Assistance in Cambodia started the program Girls Be Ambitious, giving monthly $10 grants to families with girls in school. This solution, the authors write, helps prevent the desperation that leads to trafficking. Problems persisted, however: Kun Sokkea had trouble getting to school due to the distance and male harassment, so Overlake bought her a bicycle. However, an older woman asked to borrow it, then sold it, leaving Kun Sokkea without transport, and she eventually dropped out of school. As the authors write, this was a lesson for Overlake in the nuanced difficulty of defeating poverty.
In their effort to give a complete picture of the successes and challenges in many aid situations, the authors detail Kun Sokkea’s trials as an example of what can go awry. Kun Sokkea’s circumstance was beyond her control: objectification of girls in the form of harassment eroded her sense of safety en route to school, and poverty left her without transport. But even smart, well-intentioned fixes to such problems can end up failing, such as the idea to give Kun Sokkea a bicycle. However, it’s also noteworthy that while some tactics may fail, some concurrent tactics may work—in this case, the Girls Be Ambitious program was effective.
The chapter ends with an emphasis on the importance of educating young Americans about the challenges faced in other cultures. Exposure such as the kind the Overlake students received, the authors write, can redirect a young person’s life purpose.
Keeping their Western audience in mind, which may include both parents and students, the authors implicitly encourage their readers to pursue such education, for themselves or their children.