At the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, 80,000 slaves were transported from Africa to the new world. Now, New York Times human rights columnist Nicholas Kristof reports that more than 10 times as many women and girls are being forced into brothels or other forms of slavery.
In their new book, Half the Sky, Nicholas and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, investigate the causes and the very achievable solutions to putting an end to this form of modern-day slavery. "If you begin to think of your own child not in middle school, but being locked up in a brothel, then it suddenly becomes pretty real," he says.
Children like Long Pross, kidnapped from her Cambodian village at age 13, are forced into a terrifying world of prostitution. She had not yet had sex or her first period. "The fear was overwhelming," she says. "In a room they tied your hands, and outside there was a guard. If you resisted, they electrocuted you. Sometimes they electrocuted me twice a day if I argued too much."
As a virgin, Pross was a profitable commodity. Nicholas reports that virgins bring in hundreds of dollars for brothel owners. Virgins are also in high demand by men with AIDS who believe having sex with a virgin will cure them. By the time she escaped, her virginity had been sold four times. "They stitched me up three times," she says.
Enslaved girls are also forbidden to request condoms, leaving them vulnerable to STDs, AIDS and pregnancy. Pross says she became pregnant twice. "The second time they waited until I was four months pregnant before they gave me the abortion," she says.
Pross says when she asked for a few days of rest, her eye was gouged out with a piece of metal. When her eye became infected, the brothel considered her too mutilated to be worth anything and left her on the streets. An organization called Somaly Mam Foundation, founded by a former sex slave, stepped in to help Pross reclaim her life. Pross also received an operation to repair her eye. It was not successful, but there is hope for another surgery. "Pross is just such an incredibly courageous, inspiring woman," Nicholas says.
In 2004, Nicholas was so moved by the plight of two teenage prostitutes that he purchased their freedom. After paying the brothel owners $353, Nicholas returned the young girls to their Cambodian villages.
Later, Nicholas returned to Cambodia to find, one of the women married and expecting a baby. The other woman, however, had developed a drug addiction and returned to the brothel just days after she was freed. "It just broke my heart when she went back, but the brothel gave her meth. It was a way of controlling her," Nicholas says. "The underworld these women inhabit is complex and layered. Rescuing them involves so much more than just opening a door."
Still, there are signs that things are changing. "We tend to think that this is an absolutely hopeless problem, but I've watched Cambodia over the years. Because there has been pressure—the police demand more in bribes—some of the brothel owners go from dealing in girls to dealing groceries or stealing motorcycles or selling pirated videotapes," Nicholas says. "We can make them change the kind of business they do."
In centuries past, slavery was abolished thanks to the efforts of everyday people starting grassroots movements. Nicholas says it's time to start another. "People want to help if they think they can make a difference," Nicholas says. "They get involved, and they just find it incredibly fulfilling and enriching for themselves. The truth is trying to help other people has a mixed record, but invariably you end up helping yourself."