Editor’s Note: An op-ed by Free the Slaves Director of Programs Karen Stauss was published over the weekend by the Huffington Post, in a special section they called “Slavery Sunday.” Here is her commentary and photos from a recent visit to our frontline projects in India.
The brick kilns of Uttar Pradesh, India are more than 7,000 miles from Capitol Hill in Washington. But for years, they have been linked by a groundbreaking piece of American legislation.
That law is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed by Congress in 2000. It has established the U.S. as a world leader in the fight to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery, at home and abroad.
The TVPA has helped many people escape brutal abuse. It’s a beacon of hope for millions who are still trapped in bondage.
But the TVPA must be reauthorized every few years. And sadly, Congress allowed it to expire at the end of its last session. It’s the first time that has happened. Without the key piece of authorizing legislation in place to guide America’s global anti-slavery effort, the path to freedom for those in slavery is in jeopardy.
I was thinking about the future of the TVPA as I met slavery survivors in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks ago, just days after the last Congress was gaveled to a close in America. The TVPA had helped these villages move from slavery to freedom.
They had been enslaved because they borrowed money from an unscrupulous brick kiln owner. They were forced to work for him only, for as long as he wished, and they were charged staggering amounts of interest to ensure they could never pay off the debt. Whole families – including children – were forced to work. They were threatened with violence if they questioned the situation.
Debt-bondage like this is illegal. It’s slavery. But it happens throughout the world. And the stakes are quite literally life and death. One man told me that the brick kiln manager killed his eight-year-old son after a petty dispute about access to clean drinking water at the worksite.
The U.S. government provided funding to educate these workers about their rights and organize as a group. They made a decision together that would have been impossible for any of them to make alone: they all decided to escape. The survivors have been provided with a legal advocate and I was told that the brick kiln manager has been charged with murder.
This has been happening in village after village in India. Education leads to freedom. We’re not talking about slapping up a few billboards. It’s real community organizing (President Obama knows what that is). It requires spending time with extraordinarily vulnerable people to establish trust, identify leaders and build their self-confidence. It’s remarkable what happens when people marshal their innate power and join forces with their neighbors.
This type of initiative is innovative in the remote corners of Uttar Pradesh. But it isn’t expensive. And under the TVPA, the U.S. State Department has funded similar projects around the world.
What happens after people break free is a big part of the story. When people begin to stand up for their rights, their villages begin to benefit in many, many ways: better schooling, better health care, better nutrition, a better local economy. Residents in freed villages help slaves in neighboring communities, spreading freedom.
The people of the United States have supported this investment in freedom through the TVPA.
Congress must reauthorize the act to preserve America’s role as a key participant in the growing global movement to abolish slavery in the 21st century. It speaks well of our nation that the thing we value most – freedom – is something we help others achieve. It’s unthinkable that we would stop – that we would tell the next village in slavery that America can’t help.
During the 2010 Freedom Awards events, Free the Slaves became acquainted with an energetic artist and traveler, Ben Swatez. Ben did live painting during the Freedom Rocks after party, and we were inspired by his passion, and ability to connect with the audience.
Ben had an idea to continue to help Free the Slaves out: the India Art Project, which is an outgrowth of Free the Slaves’ Free a Village Build a Movement campaign, in which entire communities are brought out of slavery through holistic, economic and social programs. Ben auctioned off the art he produced at Freedom Rocks to finance his trip to India. There, he planned to create an art therapy program for survivors of slavery. In collaboration with the villagers, Ben planned to create a series of art works.
Ben successfully raised the money. Last month, he and his partner Diana departed for Uttar Pradesh, India, to work with the children in the village of Bahari—a village that was once embroiled in slavery, and now, with the help of FTS partners and the Free a Village Build a Movement campaign, have moved out of slavery.
Read Ben and Diana’s dispatch, and see more photos of children in Bahari doing art therapy after the jump!
CNN’s coverage of anti-slavery efforts in Uttar Pradesh, India continued yesterday, with Indian Labor Secretary Prabhat C. Chaturvedi (shown in the video below) responding over use of the “S” word in the news reports.
Secretary Chaturvedi disagrees with the use of the word “slavery” to define the problem of bonded labor, which often binds entire families and communities for generations.
Chaturvedi told CNN’s Sara Sidner, “We are aware of the problem of bonded labor, and also [the] problem of child labor in this country.” But, he said, “I would certainly not like to bracket this as slavery.” It is a problem of poverty, he insists.
Earlier this week, CNN aired two news reports on debt bondage in India. One piece showed an entire family, including small children, laboring in a brick kiln to pay off a debt of the equivalent of $22. Another showed a raid and rescue of bonded child laborers at a carpet loom.
These pieces show that there are communities in India where bonded labor thrives, where entire communities are under the yoke of slaveholders for generations.
Debt bondage is not a problem unique to India. Cases of bonded labor have been found around the world—including in the United States. Chaturvedi is correct that poverty is often one of the root causes of this practice.
But bonded labor is slavery. The United Nations recognizes it as such. Just last December, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that modern-day slavery persists in the forms of “serfdom, debt bondage and forced and bonded labor,” and debt bondage is listed as a form of slavery in the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery.
Chaturvedi says, “Law and its enforcement is not going to solve this issue because the real cause of bonded labor or child labor for that matter, is poverty.”
There are no simple solutions, and laws on their own, are not enough. The Bonded Labour Act of 1976 outlawed the practice in India. And yet, it persists. It thrives in a context of poverty and a lack of determined enforcement of anti-slavery laws.
But there are solutions. The Free a Village, Build a Movement initiative that Free the Slaves’ Indian partners implement, is a holistic, comprehensive program that empowers people in bonded labor with knowledge of their rights. It helps them demand payment for their work and an end to the violence and threats. Transitional schools help children become educated for the future, and successfully enter village schools. Villagers learn to organize and demand justice, dismantling the systems that allow slavery to exist. The program helps the Indian legal system work more effectively in these remote locations. (Find out more about our Free a Village Build a Movement campaign here).
Real and lasting change can happen when, in combination with programs like this, officials carry out their legal obligations to actively seek out cases of bonded labor, release and assist victims, and prosecute slaveholders.Sara Sidner of CNN is continuing covering of Free the Slaves’ work in Uttar Pradesh, India. Just launched on Monday, CNN’s Freedom Project covers modern-day slavery all over the world. New stories are going online and broadcast every single day—a truly unprecedented scope of coverage. And Free the Slaves is honored and thrilled to be a part of it!
Yesterday Sara Sidner’s segment on debt bondage in India aired. CNN camera crews shot a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh, India, where entire families are enslaved over bogus debts, forced to build bricks under threats of violence.
Today, the coverage continues with an exploration of the work being done to eradicate slavery in Uttar Pradesh. The segment begins with a raid. Law enforcement and Free the Slaves partners descended on a carpet loom known to house enslaved children. But when they arrived, it was virtually empty—the slaveholders had been tipped off, and had evacuated the loom.
Free the Slaves South Asia Director Supriya Awasthi (shown briefly in the video above), says “I freaked out, as it was a huge loom, but there were no kids there.” But the team of rescuers ran to the back of the building, where they found the children being shuffled away. Activists from Free the Slaves’ partner organization MSEMVS were able to rescue six bonded laborers—five children, and one disabled adult.
The footage above is hard to watch. The raid and rescue can be a terrifying moment for the victims. In some instances, victims have been rescued before, only to be re-enslaved. Without comprehensive, holistic programs that deal with the root causes of slavery, raids and rescues don’t lead to lasting freedom.
That’s why Free the Slaves created the Free a Village Build a Movement campaign, to empower entire communities to come out of the influence of their slaveholders. Through micro loans, villagers can become self sufficient. Schools help children become educated for the future. Villagers are empowered with knowledge of their rights. They learn to organize and demand justice.
CNN was able to capture some of this work. They interviewed formerly enslaved children, who spend their days in school, rather than toiling in looms or brick kilns. Sidner reports that some former slaves have filed an official complaint of sexual harassment agains their former slaveholder, describing it as “an act of courage” that “would never have been possible, if they hadn’t been told of their rights.”
In the course of her work, there are times when Free the Slaves South Asia Director Supriya Awasthi feels that her safety is at risk. This was the case when she was with the CNN news crew as they documented the reality of modern-day slavery in India. At one point, slaveholders appeared. Intimidating muscle men put pressure on Supriya and the crew to leave.
But they stayed. And the risk was worth it, because the CNN cameras were able to capture the factors that force, and keep people in slavery, sometimes for generations. Much of Supriya’s work takes place in Uttar Pradesh, India where entire families are put into debt bondage—forced to work off bogus debts, brutally beaten if they try to escape. One family was enslaved over a debt of 100 rupees, the equivalent of 22 dollars. One man is working off the debt of his father: a mere 8,000 rupees, the equivalent of less than 180 dollars. Another woman says she is illiterate, so she has no idea how much she owes.
Around the three minute mark in the video above, Supriya says that of the 27 million slaves in the world today, the majority reside in India. Slavery is outlawed there. But these enslaved laborers often have no idea. Lack of education, lack of access to economic opportunities, lack of empowerment, complacency or corruption of law enforcement and government officials are just some of the forces that trap people in slavery.
But there is hope. This segment is the first of three video pieces CNN produced about slavery in India. Other pieces will show the work being done to eradicate debt bondage—they will show communities organizing and coming together to demand their rights. Stay tuned! We’ll share these pieces with you as they air.
Supriya spent several days with the CNN crew. She was with them when the cameras caught a raid on a loom where children were enslaved. Six children were rescued from debt bondage that day. The cameras were also there to document the success of Free the Slaves’ Free a Village, Build a Movement campaign, in which entire communities are released from generational slavery.
Supriya says she was especially heartened that the camera crew were able to capture a village that has come into freedom The atmosphere was “like a fair!” she said. The CNN crew told her, “we never saw such a happy village.”
We are excited to be part of CNN’s Freedom Project. Launched just yesterday, this year long initiative will depict slavery in all its nuances, all over the world. CNN’s daily coverage of modern-day slavery is already bringing new attention and energy to anti-slavery movement.
We’ll leave you with this parting shot. Supriya has worked with numerous camera crews over the years. She said “the CNN crew was the best production team I have ever worked with. When all said and done. I think CNN got the best story ever on slavery.”
Read the accompanying CNN article by reporter Sara Sidner after the jump: