In May, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama joined a social media campaign to raise awareness about the kidnapped Nigerian school girls.
By Nina Easton
October 31, 2014

The term “slavery” has lately re-entered the media vocabulary—with reports of the terror group ISIS selling off captured non-Muslim girls as slave-brides and Nigeria’s Boko Haram kidnapping school girls.

So for my latest installment of the iTunes podcast “Smart Women, Smart Power,” broadcast from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I brought together two women who have spent much of their lives fighting what they call “modern day slavery”—Holly Burkhalter of the International Justice Mission and Sarah Mendelsohn, director of CSIS’s human rights initiative.

They painted a chilling picture of enslaved children from India (where Kailash Satyarthi just won the Nobel Peace Prize for rescuing 70,000 kids) to Lake Volta, Ghana, where – as Burkalter notes—“boys can be bought for just $150.”

The children are as young as 5. “The owner who bought and sold these kids [said] you don’t want to have the older kids because they eat too much and are harder to control,” she noted. “Most had almost no clothes on, they were terribly skinny and had distended stomachs. There were terrified and did not speak.”

On a personal level, Burkhalter’s decades-long work seeing humans inflict horrors on other humans led to a spiritual crisis, followed by a spiritual journey, and a book about her religious conversion—Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith.

Sex slavery and human trafficking hasn’t been a high priority for donors or foreign aid organizations. But Mendelsohn said she sees that changing, with the United Nations leading an international effort.

“While poor people are uniquely vulnerable to trafficking, I happen to believe that poverty does not create slavery. What creates slavery are perpetuators, slave owners, slave sellers, traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and they take advantage of the unique vulnerability of very poor people,” said Burkhalter. She added that more active law enforcement is key; it led to a dramatic drop of prostituted girls in the Philippines.

“Trafficking in a crime of opportunity and people do it to make money,’’ she says. “When there is a reasonably good chance that you are going to go to jail for that money-making operation you stop doing it.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.


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