WHEN readers hear about “modern slavery” in America or abroad, they may roll their eyes and assume that’s an exaggeration. Slavery? Really? Modern slavery?
If you’re one of the doubters, then listen to Poonam Thapa, a teenage girl I met here in Nepal, where she is putting her life back together after being sold to a brothel.
And if you think, as Amnesty International suggested recently, that the solution is to decriminalize the commercial sex trade around the world, then pay special heed.
Poonam was poor and uneducated when a woman offered an escape in the form of a well-paying job. “You can have a better life,” Poonam remembers the woman saying. “And if you make good money, you will be respected by your father. You can help your family.”
So Poonam, then age 12, ran off with the woman. When Poonam was eventually deposited in a brothel in Mumbai, India, she was puzzled. “I didn’t even know what a brothel was,” she recalls.
The brothel owner, a woman, dolled her up in a skimpy dress, equipped her with falsies, and gave her heels. Then the owner sold Poonam’s virginity to an older man.
“The man raped me,” Poonam says. “I didn’t know what he was doing. But I was bleeding and hurting and crying.”
The brothel owner sternly told Poonam to buck up — she had paid $1,700 for Poonam and needed to recover her investment. So Poonam was locked inside the brothel, forced to have sex with 20 to 25 men a day, and more on Sundays and holidays. There were no days off, no trips outside the brothel, and, of course, no pay.
One day Poonam was hurting and refused a customer. She says the brothel-owner beat her and burned her with cigarettes; she showed me the scars.
Poonam thus became one of 20.9 million people worldwide — a quarter of them children — subjected to forced labor, according to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization. In the United States, tens of thousands of children are trafficked into the sex trade each year.
Men visiting Poonam’s brothel paid $2.50 for sex and were sometimes oblivious to the brutality, flattering themselves that the girls liked their work. They see girls who often smile; no one is holding a gun to their heads.
Poonam responded with what so many others have said: The smiles are on the outside, even as girls are crying inside.
“We were told to smile, because a smile is money and will pull in customers,” Poonam said. The girls were also ordered to say that they were over 18 and working voluntarily.
Then one day police raided the brothel. Warned by the brothel owner that the police would torture her if they found she was a child or trafficked, Poonam claimed that she was 23 and working voluntarily, but the police could see that she was a child and took her to a shelter.
What makes me sick is that there are "customers" who relish this sort of thing. Surely that man who paid for her virginity knew what he was...
Indian authorities returned Poonam to the care of Maiti Nepal, a leading anti-trafficking organization. Now Poonam is studying to be a social worker in hopes of helping other trafficked girls. A new study suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder is frequent among those who have been trafficked.
Anuradha Koirala, founder of Maiti Nepal, notes that there has been a bit of progress against sex trafficking of Nepali girls. A crucial step, whether in Nepal or the United States, is ending the impunity for pimps and traffickers, and Koirala says that Maiti Nepal has helped prosecute 800 people for involvement in trafficking. In America as well, we need to prosecute traffickers rather than their victims.
Plenty of well-meaning people back Amnesty International’s proposal for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including of pimps and brothels, and it’s certainly true that some women (and men) work in the sex trade voluntarily. Yet in practice, approaches similar to Amnesty’s have ended up simply empowering pimps. And while under these proposals human trafficking would remain illegal, the police would no longer have a reason to raid brothels to search for girls like Poonam. Both Poonam and Koirala think that full decriminalization is a catastrophic idea; if it were in place, Poonam might still be enslaved.
“There is no protection to the powerless,” Koirala said of full decriminalization. “All the benefits go to the perpetrators and exploiters.”
The blunt truth is that no strategy works all that well against trafficking. But maybe the most successful has been Sweden’s, cracking down on traffickers and customers while providing social services and exit ramps for women in the sex trade.
That’s what human trafficking is, an ugly form of exploitation that at its worst amounts to modern slavery. In the 21st century, isn’t it finally time to abolish slavery forever?