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Contrary to popular opinion, slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century. The practice still continues today in one form or another in every country in the world. It is easy to assume that slavery only exists today within war-torn, impoverished countries, but that could not be further from the truth.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery is observed annually on the 2nd of December to focus on the elimination of human trafficking, child labour and other forms of modern-day slavery. Slavery has evolved and manifested itself in different guises in the modern world. The UN human rights bodies have documented the persistent old forms of slavery that are embedded in traditional beliefs and customs. These forms of slavery are the result of long-standing discrimination against the most vulnerable groups in societies, such as those regarded as being of low caste, tribal minorities and indigenous peoples.

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The focus of this day is on eradicating these contemporary forms of slavery. Modern slavery involves one person possessing or controlling another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal. It contributes to the production of at least 122 goods from 58 countries worldwide. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates the illicit profits of forced labour to be $150 billion a year. From women forced into prostitution, children and adults forced to work in agriculture, domestic work, or factories and sweatshops producing goods for global supply chains, entire families forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts; or girls forced to marry older men, the illegal practice still blights the contemporary world.

The 2014 Global Slavery Index (GSI) has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, a global human rights organization with a mission to end modern slavery in a generation. The report looks at prevalence (the percentage of a country’s population that is enslaved) as well as the total number of people living in modern slavery in each country. It estimates that over 23.5 million people in Asia are living in modern slavery.

While India’s economy is booming in various industries and sectors, it is also home to more than 14 million victims of slavery, ranging from bonded labor to prostitution. The index found India had by far the greatest number of slaves of the 167 countries surveyed.

This report by ILO reinforces the GSI’s findings:

India’s modern slavery challenges are immense. Across India’s population of over 1.2 billion people, all forms of modern slavery, including inter-generational bonded labour, trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced marriage, exist…There are reports of women and children from India being recruited with promises of non-existent jobs and later sold for sexual exploitation, or forced into sham marriages. In some religious groups, pre-pubescent girls are sold for sexual servitude in temples. Recent reports suggest that one child goes missing every eight minutes; it is feared that some are sold into forced begging, domestic work, and commercial sexual exploitation.”

Most of us are aware of the exploitation that exists today, but we either turn a blind eye or don’t see how we can help. The truth is, we have more power than we know. Here are some ways people have been doing their part to help abolish modern slavery in India.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Criminal justice reforms specific to human trafficking are the strongest component of India’s response to modern slavery. In 2013, the government amended the Indian Penal Code to include specific anti-trafficking provisions. In 2014, the government expanded the number of police anti-human trafficking units across the country to 215 units, aiming to establish a unit in 650 districts. The judiciary and over 20,000 law enforcement have received training on victim identification, the new legal framework, and victim-centered investigations.

Free The Slaves

Free The Slaves is an NGO organisation that works on global advocacy for victims of modern slavery found in Asia, Africa and South America. One of the means of banishing slavery emphasised upon the is a need for rights education. Educating those in bondage about their rights, and showing them how others in similar circumstances have successfully reclaimed their freedom, is the first step.

Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan Empowering Dalit Women

Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan is a Dalit (Dalit, meaning “oppressed” in South Asia, the self-chosen political name of castes formerly considered “untouchable”)  Women’s Collective NGO that aims to empower Dalit women and children through leadership building. Dalit Women’s Collective also focuses on community building to increase social consciousness and secure education rights for children as part of their list of objectives and successful campaigns.

International Dalit Solidarity Network

International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) addresses caste discrimination as a critical human rights issue. Their network produces crucial input in the form of documentation, strategic interventions and lobby action and also supports lobby activities on a national level. They provide international support for the work of national advocacy platforms as they promote Dalit rights and call upon the Indian government to live up to their obligations under national and international law.

Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi

Some of you may recall when young human rights activist Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan shared her Nobel Peace Prize with Kailash Satyarthi. Satyarthi was jointly awarded the prize for his remarkable efforts in fighting for the rights of all children to obtain an education and lobbying against the suppression of children and young people, over the past three decades. The grassroots movement founded by him, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Children Movement) has liberated more than 84 000 children from exploitation.

These are just some of the many networks that strive to eradicate the dated traditions of forced work and servitude in India. The police and legislation often do not take cases reported by Dalits and the NGOs that serve them of importance and many rescue missions implemented end up thwarted by red tape causing the perpetrators to reclaim their workers and unleash punishment on them for daring to complain. With local and global organisations as well as dedicated people like Yousafzai and  Satyarthi, the world is finally starting to recognise that slavery isn’t just a thing of the past.

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Featured Image: Randy Adams via Creative Commons 

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