IMG_1230Under the lush green hills and red clay that surround Lubono village, lies gold. It’s the centerpiece of the local economy. Much of the mining here is carried out by what are called “artisanal” miners. This term masks the incredibly difficult and dangerous work in which the miners are engaged.

The approach to mining here has more in common with the 19th century than the 21st. Using hand tools, shafts up to 30 meters deep and 100 meters lateral under the mountain are dug. The miners stop digging when the shaft becomes so deep that the air runs out (there are no compressors). The tunnels have little or no bracing, though they are watched carefully for fissures that signal the potential for a cave-in.  The shafts do not even have ladders; the miners clamber up and down over rocks protruding from the sides.

The earth containing the ore is hauled out and then carried on the backs of the miners down the lengthy paths. The ore is crushed by hand and then washed in streams in search of flakes of gold. I struggled just to walk up and down the mountain; it’s hard to describe how physically grueling the work is in search of tiny amounts of gold that yield a meager living.

IMG_1232The physical dangers are compounded by the risk of slavery. The miners work as small, independent teams of 5 to 10 people. The team leader will borrow money for tools and to pay living expenses until the mine begins to pay off, which doesn’t always happen. The miners fall behind in their obligations, which can lead to debt bondage slavery. The miners cooperative in this small community uncovered 61 cases of debt bondage. Other miners have been coerced into forced labor by thugs, soldiers and militias; 57 such cases were discovered, of which 40 were underage boys.

While the great majority of miners are men, women in the surrounding community are also at risk, with cases of sex slavery and forced marriage reported.

I spoke to men and women who had been victimized by slavery. Laurent borrowed money for tools and food, accumulating a debt of over $1,500. The creditor threatened to take his home, tools and mine, ultimately leading to debt bondage.  Matendo and Faida had both seen their husbands killed in the conflict that roiled eastern Congo and were then forced to marry their brothers-in-law according to local custom.

The leaders of the FTS Congo program – Jack Kahorha and Gabriel Deussom – have been working closely with a local NGO – Justice pour Tous, which means Justice for All – to build resistance to slavery in South Kivu. In Lubono, they have helped galvanize action by the miners cooperative. We met with the leaders of the committee in a clean, brick building they had constructed, with the leadership committee arrayed on wooden benches. The committee of 12 consists of nine men and three women, among whom are the traditional chief, the schoolteacher and the prefect of the local secondary school.

maurice at mineOver the past year, they have carried out an amazing array of educational and organizing activities that are helping to prevent and end slavery in this mining community. These have included community meetings, home visits, public forums, educational sessions for children and youth in schools, small group discussions and training of teachers, clergy and village leaders. They worked with the local community radio station to develop a weekly broadcast on slavery that is heard every Sunday. They developed brochures that have been widely distributed in the surrounding area.

Equally important has been the building of solidarity and joint action to confront slavery. Rather than being atomized, the community is finding protection by working together. To that end, they developed an action plan for identifying, liberating and supporting people who are enslaved. The cooperative intervenes in cases of debt bondage to negotiate the resolution of loans on reasonable terms. A savings and loan program has been started into which miners and their families are contributing small sums every Friday. The savings and loans meetings are also becoming a forum for social action, such as helping children who are out of school or malnourished. At-risk women, such as Matendo and Faida are coming under the committee’s protection.

The work of ending slavery in Lubono is far from finished. It remains an impoverished and at-risk community. But heartening progress in a very difficult context has been achieved. What lies ahead is the long-term, persistent work of strengthening community resources and organization so that the people of Lubono can protect themselves and live free.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about our work in the Congo on the FTS Congo webpage.

Every day we see how the power of community can liberate entire villages from slavery around the globe. That is why we’re asking our community of supporters to come together to take a powerful stand.

Our goal is simple: we want to raise $350,000 by the end of 2014 and welcome 1,000 new donors to our cause. If you haven’t contributed to Free the Slaves this year, we invite you to please make a secure donation today. If you know friends, family, coworkers or neighbors who would consider joining the fight for a slavery-free world, please invite them to contribute as well.

power of 12

What your generous donations will do to fight slavery in 2014:

  • Free more than 1,250 men, women and children from slavery in Brazil, Congo, Ghana, Haiti, India and Nepal.
  • Educate more than 39,500 people about their rights, to help them avoid slavery in the first place.
  • Empower more than 1,320 communities to organize activities that will slavery-proof their villages.

There are 21-30 million people enslaved in the world today. If each person reading this email would commit now to donating $21 per month, Free the Slaves will exceed our $350,000 target. Any gift of any amount, given monthly, makes a big difference. That’s the “Power of 12″ – making a monthly gift to stretch the power of your giving.

Free the Slaves is ending slavery right now by harnessing the strength of communities. Our community-building model moves people from slavery to sustainable freedom through prevention, empowerment, rehabilitation and reintegration. With your help, we can expand our reach to liberate more communities in trafficking hot spots.

Please make your investment in freedom go further by signing up for monthly giving as part of the Power of 12. Any size gift is welcome. You can get started here or give us a call at 202-775-7480 and we’d be happy to set it up for you.

logo_endslaverynowOur friends at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have just launched a new website dedicated to building bridges between people who want to take action and organizations that are working to eradicate slavery around the world.

It’s called End Slavery Now.

“Though slavery still exists and has ever since ancient times, so have committed individuals working to end it,” the group notes. “Abolitionists are the everyday people turning ordinary interests, passions and skills into organized antislavery work. They’ve existed for hundreds of years, and they’re actively fighting today.”

The new site outlines different forms of slavery and more than 1,000 anti-trafficking groups (including Free the Slaves) that are working to address them.

“Whether it’s awareness building, policy creation, rescues, prosecution, aftercare services or empowering survivors, organizations are doing incredible things to help realize real freedom throughout the world. We all have a role in ending slavery,” the group says. “Find yours.”

kerry holding 2014 tip report

Kerry releases 2014 TIP Report | State Dept. Video

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says “no government, anywhere yet, is doing enough” to eradicate slavery, and “zones of impunity” exist around the world that allow trafficking to flourish.

Kerry’s comments came as he unveiled the State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report this morning, which provides a country-by-country assessment of governmental efforts to combat modern-day slavery.

“Some aren’t trying enough,” Kerry said, “others are trying hard, but we all need to try harder and do more.”

The TIP Report ranks governments worldwide into three tiers based on their efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking. This year’s report downgraded some countries into the lowest tier, which creates the possibility of U.S. sanctions.  

“Advocates feared poor performing countries, Thailand and Malaysia, would receive a “pass” due to sensitive geopolitical relationships; however, they received a downgrade to Tier 3 (the lowest tier),” according to an assessment released this morning by the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of human rights organizations including Free the Slaves.

“The TIP Report is a critical tool in combating modern slavery,” said ATEST Director Melysa Sperber. “The report’s honest assessment should compel the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and other countries with serious human trafficking problems to step up their efforts to fight this horrific human rights crime.”

TIP2014cover_200_1The U.S. received a top Tier 1 ranking, though “ATEST believes there are still serious gaps in the U.S. response to human trafficking,” according to the group’s statement.

Kerry focused on the need for American leadership in the global battle against slavery, both to advance human rights and to protect global commerce from unfair competition by companies who utilize slave labor to cut costs.

“We need to integrate anti-trafficking efforts into all areas of our diplomatic and development work,” Kerry said. “This is a call to action. It’s a call to conscience. It is a reminder of what happens in many dark places that need light. And we have a responsibility to try to bring that light.”

The countries where Free the Slaves conducts front line field operations received mixed rankings in this year’s TIP Report Tier Ranking Assessments.  India, Nepal, Brazil and Ghana received Tier 2 assessments. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is on the Tier 3 list. Haiti is on a Tier 2 Watch List, which means it has been put on notice that it must improve its anti-slavery efforts or it will be downgraded.

“The heinous persistence of slavery demands accountability against a rigorous set of standards. Secretary Kerry and the State Department are to be commended for holding to account those governments that neglect their responsibilities and for publicly lauding the heroes who are battling this scourge,” said FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg. “We urge President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the Congress to now mobilize the level of U.S. resources and political leadership equal to the challenges outlined in the TIP Report.”

“ATEST is calling on the U.S. Government to increase funding and improve policies to:

  • “Stop treating victims as criminals. Children are arrested for prostitution and put in jail or juvenile detention facilities instead of receiving the services they need and deserve as victims of a horrendous crime;
  • “Provide services to all victims of modern slavery. Too many trafficking survivors aren’t getting timely access to the most basic emergency services such as shelter beds and medical care; even more are losing support services well before they are able to recover from such a traumatic crime;
  • “Improve the child welfare system.  Research conducted by states shows that children in the Child Welfare System are at significant risk of being trafficked;
  • “Protect our visa system from fraudulent foreign labor recruiters. An absence of oversight has resulted in the failure to prevent foreign labor brokers from luring men, women and children into forced labor situations in domestic service, restaurant, agriculture, sex trade, and other industries in the U.S.;
  •  “Ensure slave-free commerce. Current policies do not guarantee that the U.S. government and companies doing business in the here have slave-free supply chains or even require transparency about their efforts to prevent human trafficking.”

The ATEST coalition is also calling on Congress to make the fight against human trafficking a higher priority by elevating the State Department Trafficking in Persons Office (J/TIP) to the status of Bureau “so that its leaders can leverage their expertise on modern slavery with greater authority and impact,” the group says.

bhanjua headshot 2014-bThe director of Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS) in India, Bhanuja Sharan Lal, Ph.D., has been honored this morning by the U.S. State Department as a global anti-slavery hero in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons report.

His team of more than 75 front line anti-slavery activists has been progressively dismantling entrenched systems of slavery at brick kilns, farms and quarries in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They have transformed hundreds of communities into no-go zones for traffickers, fully eradicating slavery in more than 130 villages. The group’s name in English means the “Society for Human Development and Women’s Empowerment.” It has been a Free the Salves partner organization since 2005.

Led by Dr. Lal, the MSEMVS Sustained Liberation Program helps residents establish community vigilance committees, a process through which groups of slaves come to freedom by exercising collective power and by pressuring police to enforce anti-slavery laws. His strategy focuses on movement building, so that community-level committees are united in 14 district-level networks and a larger federation, through which they enable local government to address root causes of slavery. 


Dr. Lal (right) maps out strategy with MSEMVS activist Rajneesh Kumar Yadev (center) & Free the Slaves South Asia Director Supriya Awasthi (right). | Photo: FTS / FitzPatrick

MSEMVS teams are currently assisting in rescues of approximately 65 men, women and children every month, providing slavery survivors with follow-up reintegration support. Under Dr. Lal’s leadership, MSEMVS launched and manages a rescue shelter in Bihar, providing rights-based assistance and recovery to sex trafficking survivors. Currently, 14 village-based transitional schools are enabling more than 100 child slavery survivors to catch up on their education, so that they can successfully enter public schools within three years.

Dr. Lal became director of MSEMVS in 2003, and his leadership has been characterized by a commitment to ownership of anti-slavery efforts by those most affected, as well as by rigorous documentation of the program’s achievements, and tenacious engagement of authorities. He has guided many documentary filmmaking teams to bring the realities of modern slavery in India to a global audience. He has set a personal example of caring for and diligently assisting each person coming out of slavery – enabling those in slavery to understand their own unique human worth.

Quick Questions & Answers with Dr. Lal

bhanuja in field 01

Dr. Lal with community members breaking free from slavery | Photo: FTS / Baumann

How did you become an anti-slavery activist and why have you chosen this as your life’s work?

“There are so many sectors where bonded labor and child labor are being used, one can see the daily exploitation. The situation touched me, a lot. The laborers were not being paid; they were beaten up. They were chained in the carpet industry. And nobody was there to help them. So I started. I started to do my best to bring human dignity to their lives.

What impact is slavery having on the people and the economy of India?

“Many business owners are only thinking about profit, they are not thinking about the lives of the people who are working for them. This will have an effect on the Indian economy because of international efforts to avoid products made by bonded labor and child labor. For example: when the carpet industry was using bonded and child labor, sales declined because of international campaigns against Indian carpets. When the industry worked to cleanse itself, the Indian carpet industry began again to grow.”

How does your organization work to end slavery: what is the strategy or process?

“First: identify communities affected by slavery and trafficking. Many are identified when some of their members are rescued. Second: conduct systematic baseline research to assess the situation and needs. Third: form a community vigilance committee to develop and lead the community’s strategy to break free. Fourth: identify why slavery is happening in an individual community. Fifth: address the causes – communities build collective strength and capacity through skills training, legal literacy, independent income generation and accessing government entitlements, which empowers the community to challenge the grip of slaveholders and traffickers. Sixth: rescue slavery victims, rehabilitate survivors and in some places create transitional schools for former child slaves, aimed at establishing lasting freedom by ensuring the community can sustain its efforts.”

What is the most rewarding part of your work; what keeps you optimistic?

“It is whenever we see slavery victims and communities moving toward sustainable freedom and building their collective power against slavery. I have witnessed many individuals and communities doing this. It gives me courage, motivation and energy to work for the elimination of slavery.”