A young, terrified girl is hanging out of a window on a rope. Her eyes are wide with fear. One unlucky move and she’ll die.
She’s desperate to escape a living hell: months of horrific violence in a squalid brothel, raped many times every night, and kept in isolation thousands of miles from the people who love her.
This is the story of 13-year-old Lakshmi, as told in the film SOLD. Lakshmi’s ordeal begins when her impoverished family in Nepal gives her away to a glamorous-looking woman who promises to take the girl to work for a rich family in India.
That promise couldn’t be further from the truth. Lakshmi finds herself forced to work as a sex slave in a Mumbai brothel. The brave girl risks everything to escape. But what then? The journey ahead to true freedom is long and difficult.
Modern slavery takes many forms, with sexual exploitation being the most lucrative. According to the International Labour Organisation, the sex-trafficking industry has a $99 billion annual turnover. It’s a growing business run by dangerous and well-organised traffickers who act with almost total impunity.
The victims, many children, are stripped of their dignity and treated like commodities. Some carry the names of their “owners” tattooed on their bodies. Others are forced into prostitution to pay off a family debt, as relatives exchange them for a “loan”, believing they will have a better life.
Slavery is the worst human rights crime. It’s also a silent crime. Terrified, ashamed and dependent on their traffickers, the victims often don’t have the means, strength, or even motivation to escape. They are brainwashed into believing that they will be charged as criminals if they run away.
For those who are rescued or manage to escape, life is not easy. In many countries they are not recognised as victims, but only as prostitutes who have brought shame on their family.
Most of all, the victims bear deep psychological scars and are disempowered. When they escape they are unable to make their own choices and have recurring nightmares. Recovery is slow and support is not always available.
Very few survivors take legal action against their tormentors. Evidence is hard to obtain: witnesses are reluctant to put their lives at risk, so the strength of prosecution relies on the strength of these frail victims.
The traffickers go unpunished. There are 45.8 million people currently enslaved, according to the Walk Free Foundation, yet there were only 10,051 prosecutions worldwide in 2014. The US saw only 257 prosecutions.
Without a strong support network to help victims, many are unable to survive freedom. Sadly, some end up returning to the very life they fled.
And so this appalling cycle is repeated, as traffickers prey on the vulnerability of their victims and gain from their invisible suffering.
Education is at the heart of breaking this cycle and ensuring children don’t fall into the hands of traffickers. We all have a part to play in guaranteeing that children are Taught, Not Trafficked.
Their journey — as for Lakshmi — should be one of hope.
This post was written along with Gillian Anderson, who stars in SOLD, supporting Childreach International’s Taught Not Trafficked campaign. SOLD’s UK premiere is at the Foundation’s Trust Women Conference on November 30.
View the original op-ed as it appeared in the Evening Standard here.