“Although slave ownership is almost universally illegal,“estimates suggest 27 million people today are held in conditions indistinguishable from slavery.” (Batstone 2007).
by Linda Hansen
I was taught from childhood that humanity was progressing, and readily accepted the consoling myth that “Slavery had been abolished.” I was unwilling to consider how improbable this was, even when hearing about the economic subjugation of entire countries.
When stories of slavery came my way, I’d turn away, deferring to important‐ sounding groups: The World Health and Human Rights Organisations, the International Labour Organisation and so on. Wasn’t it their task to fix this? Surely they weren’t allowing such in human behaviour to continue? But even the most basic research has swiftly revealed how wide spread modern slavery is.
This is literal, bodily slavery: labourers chained, women and children in cages, workers denied all wages, captives subjugated through a combination of beatings, threats and drug dependency, humans owned by and for others seeking satisfaction … real situations that cannot be glibly dismissed with the self‐indulgent cry – “Oh, aren’t we all slaves!” – of fashionable personal development studies.
Consider Meena. She is nine years old, a happy, healthy, lively child, until the day she is kidnapped and becomes one o f the estimated 600,000 young girls who are annually trafficked across the world’s borders or into other regions to be sold as female flesh. She has become a sex slave, victim perhaps to the myth that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Her chances of dying of AIDS herself, before she succumbs to death from rape and enforced, drugged and often caged confinement in a brothel, are very high. (Kristof and WuDunn 2010)
Sex slavery almost always carries the death sentence of AIDS. While prositution is often called the world’s oldest profession, rape and sex slavery can be seen as the most primitive forms of subjugation. As I considered rape, I came to see that to force one’s seed into the child‐bearers of a rival is, for an animal, the utimate conquest. As an animal act, it is even understandable. When humans are deprived of technology, when our humanity is taken from us, rape is used as a way to control and subjugate. The militia in the Eastern Congo, lacking ammunition for their guns, routinely mass rape to terrorize the population. Barbarity on this scale led the United Nations in 2008 to classify rape as a weapon of war.
Like rape, sex slavery has little to do with male libido. In cultures of sexism and misogyny, where women are routinely the victims of honor killings, bride burning, genital cutting, acid attacks, mass rape and domestic violence, these acts are much more abou t dominance and subjugation. Authors Kristof and WuDunn saw for themselves women transmitting such misogynistic cultural values: routinely managing brothels, ensuring daughters’ genitals are cut, participating in bride beatings and burnings, and carrying out female infanticide directly or indirectl y by failing to vaccinate or feed daughters. This is the price paid for unquestioningly upholding cultural values.
Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, claimed in 1990 that more than 100 million of the world’s women were missing and unaccounted for, in that year. Taking into account global birth and death rates, these women had been disposed of, without anybody caring enough to find out their fate. While gender discrimination exists world‐wide, in some cultures it is lethal. People already viewed as discounted humans are more readily enslaved.
Modern technology has enabled trafficking, genocide and war on a previously unimagined scale. There is also immense financial gain to be made here. Beyond the warzones, forced prostitutes or sex slaves are found in disproportionately high numbers in outwardly religious societies. So their women can keep their virtue until marriage, young men from these societies seek sexual release with slaves. In some of these countries, not only slavery but brothels are technically illegal, yet research identifies literally millions of prostitutes, many still children, openly enslaved in brothels that are well‐ known to authorities, including the police . Again this shows blind cultural conformity instills in us a righteousness that leads us to callously dismiss others’ humanity.
In the late eighteenth century, abolitionists were portrayed by pro‐slavers as idealistic moralizers who didn’t understand economic realities. In the same way, sex slavery today is often dismissed as a “women’s issue” or the traditional, cultural problems of “others”.
Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and freed all slaves in its colonies in 1833. Acts soon followed by other countries. For sixty years, the British bore the cost. The drop in revenue from sugar production led to the loss of an estimated entire year’s gross domestic product. Taxes were increased and thousands of naval men killed, while suppressing the trade in the Atlantic.
Slavery was not legally abolished in Aotearoa however, until 1862, and until that time was openly practised in the Chatham Islands with the support of the Crown court and Anglican clergy. (Michael King, 2000). Dubbed as New Zealand’s most shameful secret, this tale is graphically told in the film, The Feathers of Peace. (2000).
As a country, New Zealand thrives while parents in many nations, reduced by poverty, knowingly or unknowingly sell their children into sexual slavery. It benefits economically from global slave labour through its importing of cheap mass‐produced consumer goods.
New Zealand has also been accused (2009) of being a destination for the trafficking of women for sex slavery from Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. In April 2010, New Zealand officials acknowledged there could well be undetected sex slaves in this country. In 2010 Simon Power, N.Z. Minister of Justice, reported that New Zealand had yet to identify a case of human trafficking however Authorities here maintain that there is no automatic link between prostitution and human trafficking as claimed by the U.S. From 2003, when prostitution was legalised in New Zealand until 2008, there were less than 100 prosecutions for crimes involving commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Almost all prosecutions involved failure to confirm that the worker was 18, as claimed. (The legal age for marriage with parental consent is 16.)
The high number of abused children and suicidal youth in this country already speaks of a tendency to discount humans. (Amartya Sen.) Taken to extremes, this psychic tendency can and does allow for the “reasoning away” of slavery. This society has no cause for complacency. Along with the discounting of young human lives, our glacial indifference to the principles of slavery is evident in our acceptance of the enslaved animals on which New Zealand rides to economic prosperity. (RNZ 2011). One must wonder if the leaders who promote and encourage such primitive behaviour could ever inspire true change, at any level.
While we maintain our “right” to subjugate any other being through the excuse of cultural necessity, we will relinquish our self-responsibility to so-called higher authorities. The cost to our higher humanizing potential is beyond measure, numbing us into the appalling acquiescence to the human atrocities outlined in this brief article.
NOT for sale: The return of the Global Slave Trade and how wecan fight it. USA: Harper CollinsBarclay, Barry. (2000). The Feathers of Peace. New Zealand Film Commission documentary
King Michael. (2000). Moriori: A People Rediscovered. (Revised Edition). N.Z: Viking Press
Kristof, Nicolas & WuDunn, Sheryl. (2010). Half the sky: How to change the world. U.K: Virago Press.
Pilger, John. (1998). Inside Burma: Land of Fear (film). Directed by David Munro Power, Simon. (2010) U.N. Human Rights Committee. 16 March 2010. http://
Radio New Zealand: Our Changing World (21 April 2011). AgResearch scientists aim to reduce methane emissions by modifying the rumen of cattle and sheep.
Savage, Jared. (2009). N.Z. Herald: Sex Slaves: 4 April 2009
U.S. State Department. (2009). Trafficking in Persons. http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/ tiprpt/2009/