I still think about Fatima, a 15-year-old girl who almost became a perishable product.
She ran to greet us five years ago at a Christian shelter in north India — a safe place for women and children rescued from slavery, forced prostitution and human traffickers.
Her smile shone as brightly as her yellow sari. She was learning to read and sew, to sing and laugh. She recited the Lord’s Prayer by heart and was getting to know the One who taught it. She didn’t go to bed hungry anymore. She knew someone cared whether she lived or died.
Fatima’s father pulled a rickshaw in Kolkata (Calcutta). She never went to school. When she reached age 6, her abusive stepmother forced her to start cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family. She also worked cutting rubber to make sandals — one rupee (about 2 cents) for 12 straps.
When Fatima was 14, her stepmother took her to a “youth hostel” and left her there. It turned out to be a brothel.
When her first customer came to her room, Fatima hit him on the head with a hard-soled shoe and fled. She walked 20 kilometers to the main train station in Kolkata. A child protective agency found her there and sent her by train to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. On arrival she was taken to the Christian shelter.
“She was very tense and afraid,” recalled the shelter director. “She shouted, ‘Leave me alone!’ She thought she was being brought to another brothel.” But Fatima was among friends at last.
If only every child in her position could find such a sanctuary.
Human trafficking is a business. More to the point in these brutal economic times, it’s a very profitable business. Like any other business, it has employers and employees, buyers and sellers, supply and demand.
The only difference: The products of this business are people — like Fatima, who was about to be consumed when she jumped off the shelf and escaped.
These human products are bought and sold, used and abused via prostitution, pornography, “entertainment,” slavery, forced labor and other forms of exploitation. When they reach their “use-by” date, the industry tosses them aside and goes after new inventory.
That’s the case in north India, one of the biggest crossroads of human trafficking. Beset by too many mouths to feed, poor villagers often sell young daughters outright to sex traffickers, who turn a profit by selling them to urban brothels.
When I visited the region in 2003, traffickers could buy a village girl from neighboring Nepal for 10,000 rupees (about $200 at the time) and sell her in Delhi for up to 60,000 rupees ($1,200) — “depending on her color, texture and size,” according to a local observer.
Sometimes, parents “mortgage” a daughter for a few years. By the time they save enough to redeem her, “she has suffered a lot,” said a local Christian leader who fights the sex trade.
“These girls usually start around age 14,” he said. “By the time they are 18 or 19, they’re finished” — exhausted, brutalized, infected with AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, turned out on the street to beg or starve.
Between 12 million and 27 million people worldwide are involved in some type of forced servitude, according to various estimates.
Up to 800,000 are trafficked across international borders each year – the majority being women and children swept up into the sex trade.
Lest we think it’s all “over there” somewhere, more than 14,000 foreign nationals are imported annually into sexual or domestic/sweatshop slavery in our own land of the free, according to U.S. government statistics. An estimated 200,000 American children, meanwhile, are “at risk for trafficking into the sex industry,” reports the U.S. Department of Justice.
Recent investigations of the growth of globe-spanning organized crime syndicates miss the true magnitude of “how far people themselves have become merchandise, as indentured laborers, domestic slaves, child thieves, child soldiers, child prostitutes, babies for sale … and organ suppliers,” writes Peter Robb in The New York Times. “All move around the world with the collusion of customs, immigration, police, social services, charities and aid agencies.”
Bear in mind, also, that human trafficking is only the third-largest criminal enterprise on a global scale. Drug dealing and illegal arms trafficking are even bigger operations. And the United States is the world’s largest recreational drug market, with Mexico being one of its largest suppliers.
That’s why civilians reportedly ran a higher risk — more than three times higher, per capita — of being killed last year in the Mexican border city of Juarez than in Baghdad, Iraq. Out of a population of 1.6 million, some 1,800 people were gunned down in 2008 in Juarez, where heavily armed drug gangs battle police and government forces in broad-daylight shootouts for access to key entry points to the United States.
Many evangelical Christians have become passionately involved in fighting human trafficking and other global evils through education, social action and legislation. That is in the best tradition of biblical justice.
But it’s not enough.
Laws, no matter how aggressively enforced, cannot change hearts. Nations that tolerate or participate in the buying and selling of human beings need something more fundamental. They need spiritual transformation — and we must seek it on their behalf through the transforming power of the Gospel.
That’s what William Wilberforce preached as a follower of Christ and an impassioned supporter both of missions and social change, even as he fought successfully as a member of Parliament to end the slave trade in the British Empire.
“Evil and injustice are rampant in our world today; carnal values and immorality are pervasive in our own society and throughout the world,” writes International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin in his new book, Spiritual Warfare: the Battle for God’s Glory (B&H Books, 2009; order at http://imbresources.org/).
However, the notion that human evil has somehow grown beyond God’s power to defeat it, Rankin warns, “is not biblical and clearly demeans who God is and His power. It also dismisses the victory Christ has won on the cross and God’s redemptive activity as irrelevant.”
If the Lord’s declaration in Psalm 46:10 is true, He promises: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
That includes India, the United States, Mexico and every other nation that is robbing Him of His glory today.