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Modern slavery: persistence of a global ancient wrong.

ALTHOUGH many Americans believe that slavery ended in this country with the close of the Civil War, it is commonly estimated that between 14,500 and 17,000 people are enslaved in this nation at present. The U.S. State Department reports that 800,000 persons, many of them women and children, are trafficked internationally each year, and as many as 27 million people are enslaved around the world.

Some victims are lured from their communities to engage in prostitution or find themselves trapped in the sex trade or forced labor by false promises of employment or educational opportunity. Immigrants and street children of both sexes are especially vulnerable. Trafficking, the modern name for the slave trade, can be perpetrated within a country or across national borders. International victims may find themselves in a strange land, deprived of their passports and unable to speak the language. Enslaved people are retained in this status through fear and the threat or experience of violence against themselves or their families.

In his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy," sociologist Kevin Bales contends that modern slavery is unlike the chattel slavery of the antebellum American South. Those enslaved then represented the bulk of the slave owners' wealth and, although oppressed, were in some sense valued. Today, since they cannot be legally owned, only the work or utility of the enslaved is valued, and when they are of no more economic use, they are readily discarded by the slaveholders.

Modern slavery takes many forms, including sexual exploitation of women and children; forced labor in factories, farms or private homes; debt bondage that may span generations; and coerced participation of children in paramilitary organizations. It is rooted in poverty and lack of economic opportunity and may involve fraud, deception or kidnapping. Although slavery is illegal worldwide, it is present everywhere and is sustained by ignorance, organized crime, official corruption and indifference. Enslaved people are exposed to a number of health problems, such as malnutrition, beatings, rape and emotional abuse. They may also be subjected to unsafe occupational conditions, infections--including tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections--and even death.


We can contribute to the prevention and elimination of human trafficking by refusing to patronize businesses that utilize slavery in the production of their goods or commodities, by encouraging the dissemination of information to at-risk groups and by advocating the stringent enforcement of national and international measures to prevent and punish trafficking. Congress took a step in the right direction last year by passing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, a law that will help prevent slavery and assist victims.

The ultimate solution for this gross assault on fundamental human rights and dignity lies in the elimination of its roots in poverty and social injustice.

Cheryl Easley, PhD, RN
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Title Annotation:VITAL SIGNS: Perspectives of the president of APHA
Author:Easley, Cheryl
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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