Clarisa is a 14 year old Dominican girl. Disabled, she experiences the world as a six year old does. This has left her vulnerable to abuse. Last year, a man raped her many times and then offered her body to another man. He had a reputation for trafficking young girls in this way. A life of forced prostitution would have been Clarisa’s fate.
Fortunately the police and a team from International Justice Mission (IJM), a charity which works to combat trafficking and violence, helped to rescue Clarisa and track down the traffickers. She was deeply scarred by the experience, her mother Alma noted: “After this happened, she was always in the street. She would run away, and I would have to look for her. She would get angry with me. I didn’t know what had happened.” We all know that sexual assault is one of the most internally scarring experiences imaginable. The paradox in our twisted world is that Clarisa was lucky to get away with only being raped a few times. Her good fortune is currently the exception, not the rule.
Clarisa’s case is not an isolated one: there are millions around the world held in bondage, forced to sell their bodies in sex work, domestic labour or manual labour. There are 36 million slaves in the world today. A quarter of these are children. 2 million of those children are in sex work.
I’m often drawn to ask why this kind of injustice doesn’t have more media attention. Is it because it feels distant? Or is it because it feels too big an issue? Something must be wrong when you are more likely to hear about Nigel Farage going to a Kent pub in the newspaper than you are to hear about a girl working 16 hour days in an Indian factory. Injustice on this level almost goes beyond our comprehension and it easily slips under the radar. Do you remember the girls kidnapped in Nigeria last year? Their case, long since forgotten, had the sort of coverage which it deserved. Sadly the hordes of other people who have since been kidnapped in the same by Boko Haram have just been ignored.
Perhaps it is the distance which leads to our ambivalence. While we’ll fight hard to campaign against slavery when it happens in Oxford, see responses to Operation Bullfinch as an example, the plight of a child in India or Nigeria is not our problem. Yet, in a globalized world we cannot have that attitude. Our consumption patterns make us complicit in the maintenance of the slave trade. When did you last consider what the label ‘made in India / Vietnam / China’ actually means? When did you last think about who the girl that you’re watching on that kinky website is? When did you last ask where your food comes from? People are used as commodities to produce and sustain our lifestyles: we have to wake up and accept that responsibility.
On 12 June and 13th June, Just Love Oxford is putting on the annual ‘Stand for Freedom’ event in order to engage with these issues. Students are going to be standing on Bonn Square for twenty-four hours with the aims of raising awareness about the problem of human trafficking and of challenging people to think about creative ways of making a difference. How can we stand for the marginalized? How can we challenge our lifestyles and engage with these issues? How can we be opening our eyes and deciding to live in a way that does not accidentally exploit the most vulnerable? Come along and find out!
I think it is worth adding as an endnote that I am not writing this piece from the perspective of someone who has got all the answers. In fact, I did not know any of the statistics quoted here before I offered to write something on behalf of the Just Love Human Trafficking Action Group about why we are doing the event. Writing and engaging with these issues has been a challenge, one that I hope will force me to take this area of injustice more seriously. The purpose of Stand for Freedom is that people in Oxford will go through a similar process of allowing themselves to be challenged to live more justly. We’d love you to join us.