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A talk at Turvey Abbey, 29 April 2015

I came to this subject of Trafficking by a rather circuitous route – through a frustration at the lack of women’s voices in our church, in the running of our countries, and in the world. I am certainly no expert, but it is something about which I am increasingly passionate – because all of us, as human beings, have not only a responsibility, but also have a capacity which we must recognise and act on, to end slavery.

The film 12 Years a Slave is truly powerful, but along with several colleagues, some of whom work in the area of equalities, I also found it very uncomfortable – not only for the brutality of the story, that is rather a given, but for the message it sends out to us today. There are many layers to the ‘white’ story in the film, stories of those who take advantage and kidnap a free man, those who were brutal, those who extended an amount of kindness while holding onto what they considered a right to own another human being, those who were cowards and those who courageously, at the risk of their own lives and livelihood, offered freedom. But these layers were ‘white’. Now racism is another hot topic I do not intend to try to tackle here, and recent events in the US indicate so very dramatically that race relations within the US are in great need of work. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation commission is as much needed there as it was in South Africa. Such films as 12 Years a Slave tend to provide a sense of self-satisfaction, that however bad things were then they are nowhere near as bad now. Even if we have a global problem of trafficking, it’s not as bad as then. Slavery is outlawed, and to make ourselves feel better we even give it a more politically-acceptable label – trafficking; not ‘slavery’. We cannot name it for what it is.

As the British public became aware of the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, demand grew – not without strong opposition – to take action to end the slave trade. As early as 1792 there was a popular boycott of slave-produced sugar, hitting the slave trade and those dependent upon slave labour where it hurt. The collective efforts of ordinary people made a huge contribution to ending the slave trade, at least in Britain.

We culturally point to that time period, the ending of slavery in the US Antebellum South, as the end of the worst of human enslavement. But let’s look at the statistics. At the height of the US slave trade, 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders every year. That is people kidnapped, sold and shipped across borders, across oceans, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally – all of it in illegal and illicit beginnings, even if later on that journey the legalities were laundered. 80,000 people every year.

That figure has now multiplied many-fold. There are currently 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year. According to the BBC, 36 million people are currently living in slavery, up by a considerable amount when in 2013 that figure was 20.9 million. These range in anything from child soldiers and workers in the cocoa industry, to those working in factories and on farms, captives on Thai fishing boats, to those sold into work as sexual slaves.

Of the three top sources of illicit income worldwide, slavery is second only to that of drugs. The sale of human beings brings more income even than that of the illicit arms trade. We hear of the war on drugs, and on terrorism – but rarely do we hear politicians seeking to end slavery – the subjection of one human being to the will of another and owned in person industry and labour, unable to acquire anything.

At this point it is key to ask why there is so little political engagement with this issue? As with every other ‘cause’ – every now and then there is some media campaign that shows an emotive clip during the adverts on television. Now I don’t want to discredit these efforts– but I still ask, why is the enslavement of 36 million people almost wilfully ignored by media and politicians?

Unlike during the Antebellum South, when slavery was predominantly about forced hard labour – and that labour supported commerce in agriculture and industry, slave labour today is of another type. Half of those trafficked are minors, under 18 years of age. 80% of those trafficked are women. They are being trafficked for the purposes of sex. Trafficking, slavery, is perceived as a ‘women’s problem’.

My journey began as that of a woman working in interfaith dialogue. There were, and continue to be, very few women involved in this work – and those that are tend to be pioneers. I started noticing that many of the women involved were encountering certain difficulties – not necessarily from their religious counterparts, but predominantly from colleagues within our own traditions. I suggested to a friend that we all have lunch. She suggested I write a set of guidelines – which I promptly did. They were intended for the Church of England, but ended up being presented to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Korea in 2013.

In my research, I discovered there have been numerous studies in the area of development which have proven that if women are included at all levels of development work, the education, health and financial well-being of both men and women are improved. If you don’t include women – development just doesn’t happen. The same is true of peace negotiations. If you include women at all levels of a peace process, the likelihood of a longer-lasting peace is much improved. Don’t include women, the process is less successful. It is not that women have all the answers, but that perhaps women and men working together, alongside one another, are better able to come up with longer-lasting and more wide-ranging solutions, sharing different perspectives.

And yet despite this, the gender balance in the majority of decision-making bodies, from corporations to governments to media remains heavily male. And unfortunately, there is a pressure on women of position to continue to conform to stereotype. In a recent fund-raising campaign in the Conservative Party, Theresa May auctioned off a shoe-shopping excursion with her for which £17,500 was raised – not the best example of a woman breaking stereotypes.  When women have been chosen for positions in the cabinet, there is a media obsession with their clothing, with what they wear, rather than what are their political views.

When the young woman was raped and killed so horrifically on a bus in India, the canon chancellor of Leicester cathedral  organised a prayer vigil within 24 hours. The cathedral was full, and full of women – predominantly of South Asian origin, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian & Jewish. These were women who came out from anonymity – unknown by local authorities and faith leaders alike, these women were working on the ground, picking up the pieces, literally washing the dirty laundry, of our society. They work with women who have been victim of domestic violence, forced marriage, honour abuse, sexual grooming and trafficking.

Not long after there was a high profile case of sexual grooming of a minor in Leicester, which sparked violent community tensions resulting in several stabbings.  This was followed by the murder of one young man, plus a mother and her teenage children. I went into overdrive, finding out everything I could about grooming. What I found was that it was still predominantly white, working class men who were involved, but that there was an increasing number of men from other cultural backgrounds who were getting involved. At that point, after speaking to many academics in the field, there was a reticence on the part of those doing the research to investigate grooming in minority groups. The vulnerability among minority adolescents varies from culture to culture, but there are two things in common which make grooming difficult to confront. One, is that whatever cultural background perpetrators may come from – they are all criminal. Whether it is an individual acting on their own, whether part of a gang or acting on behalf of organised crime; their actions are aimed at exploiting vulnerable young people, the greater majority of whom are young girls, for the purpose of sexual slavery. These are not people of faith and should not be identified as such. These are criminals. The other commonality is a disdain for women, and the attitude that women are a commodity to be owned, used, abused and sold. Like it or not these attitudes about women are endemic in our culture.

During an incident of community tension on one council estate, one particularly nasty young man was trying to stir up trouble among the white community with this statement: ‘Those Muslims, they are driving around, stopping our girls, and calling them whores.’ My reaction was to turn to the men standing around and point out to them that is something they all did, didn’t they? Didn’t they call out to girls and call them whores? They all looked at the ground rather shamed-face and admitted they did. But what made my blood run cold was not this admission, as discomforting as it was, but rather the possessive words ‘our girls’. It was at that point there was a dark realisation that whatever culture we are talking about, women and girls are considered commodities, something to be owned and held responsible for male honour and behaviour, running deep through our language. Women hold the ‘honour’ of their families and communities. They are not ‘human’ in themselves, but rather something lesser.

Last summer I made a point of attending events at the Global Summit for Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict. I was privileged to sit at lunch next to a woman from Leeds who works with those seeking asylum, particularly with women who have suffered sexual violence. Her biggest challenge in our asylum system is the constant need for these women to have to prove their story. The system assumes deceit; there is an accompanying questioning of the veracity of each woman’s story. For a woman, for any human being, to have to tell and re-tell the story of her humiliation and violation before a judge who questions every little detail in minutiae, is an extremely painful ordeal which puts her through excruciating events over and over again. This woman’s struggle was difficult enough trying to support the victims of such violence, let alone having to convince immigration authorities of the injustice and cruelty of their process.

Trafficking does cut across gender lines. Children, boys and girls, are exploited in manufacturing for their small hands and ability to do intricate work, they are put to manual labour and made into soldiers. A recent news story told of fishing boats from Thailand where men are taken out onto the sea, forced to work and never returned to shore again – more than likely being thrown overboard if they cause trouble or become sick. Trafficking and slavery is not limited to women and there are more horror stories than anyone can count. But we cannot ignore the fact the majority of victims are women, and that it is highly likely part of the reason so little is being done to end this trade is because of attitudes to women. Ending trafficking as such will not be so simple as boycotting sugar, or certain products – it will entail changing cultural attitudes to women and to the vulnerable, it will entail greater responsibility on the part of those involved in manufacturing to ensure their products are made in a manner in which it can be proven a fair wage has been paid, every step along the way. It will entail insisting our politicians act responsibly, even in fund-raising for campaigns – that they do not re-inforce gender stereotypes, that they promote fairer treatment of immigrants, particularly within the justice system. It will entail ensuring gender parity in running of countries, in business, in trade, in media, in development work, and in reconciliation and peace negotiations.

I have mentioned grooming, misogyny and attitudes to gender, immigration. They are all intertwined in the trafficking issue. You cannot solve trafficking or end slavery without also touching on so many other connected issues. They are a matter of human dignity and social justice.

There is recently a more sinister aspect to recent trafficking – a phenomenon I am calling ‘voluntary hostages’.

We are in a global crisis for our young people in general, with high unemployment and lack of jobs and opportunities. The younger generation have lost hope for the future, are not sure where they belong and whether they are able to make a positive contribution to the world. Compound that with a generation of Muslims who have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, in a world where the media tells them they are terrorists – and if they are young they are especially dangerous. If you are visibly Muslim, wearing the hijab, young or old, you are shouted at and abused on the street and singled out in school. When you are young, you just want to know you have a future, that you have hope for a good life and that you can make a contribution to the world. Young people want to be heroes and to belong. But our society makes it increasingly difficult for that to happen, especially if you are Muslim.

If you look at the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram or Christian extremist groups in CAR, or Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army; look at their actions – by their fruit you shall know them! They are involved in the same activities as those of organised crime in their generation of illicit income. They are involved in illegal arms, in human trafficking in the kidnap of young girls and women, in drugs, in illicit oil sales and selling stolen antiquities. They are organised crime, not people of faith. And just as those involved in grooming – they are very good at enticing their victims into doing what they want until they are trapped.

We need to find a way of bringing back our young people, because they are ours, they are the best of us. They are the ones seeking a better life, seeking to belong, seeking to be heroes. And when they are enticed abroad with promises of a better life, of belonging, of being able to make a difference in the world – however misguided and violent – we need to find a way of bringing them home. Because they will wake up, they will realise they are trapped – and we will only add to their bitterness and resentment if we do not provide them an escape route. They are as much victim of human trafficking and enslavement as any other. And when they want to come home, they have become hostage to their captors, seeking either monetary gain or even worse, to use their entrapment as emotional blackmail and terror.

A recent ‘Thought for the Day’ by a Jewish woman rabbi quoted Nelson Mandela. She had heard his statement while part of a group seeking peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine when they had visited Northern Ireland. The group in Northern Ireland had visited South Africa (I love how these words of wisdom travel the globe!). They were told: ‘Don’t think anything is impossible. The only way change is going to happen is when each of us takes responsibility and makes the changes we can, where and when we are able.’

I have paraphrased here, not remembering the exact words, but you get the gist. The issues surrounding modern slavery are complicated and vast – but each of us can make a difference in our own lives, through the products we buy and the manner in which we buy them, the conversations we have (even on a bus or in a queue), the way in which we choose to vote, and in how we treat one another. Things are bad – really bad for 36 million people living in slavery. But that doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and see a problem too big to handle. The solution comes about one person at a time, one moment at a time, in demanding better of our governments, businesses and media – and in living lives of passionate kindness.