Barbara Amaya is an award winning author, advocate and survivor. From the age of 12 she was trafficked in Washington DC and New York for over a decade. A sought-after speaker and advocate for trafficking victims and survivors of trauma everywhere, Barbara has shared her story on television and college campuses as well as with multiple civic, legal, faith and women’s organizations. Barbara is called upon by law makers and law enforcement to train others and to add her expert testimony to aid in the passing of human trafficking legislation in her home state of Virginia as well as other states. In 2014 Barbara was awarded the James B. Hunter Human Rights Award. She is the author of the book Nobody's Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery and Transformation (2015).
Holly Austin Gibbs (formerly Smith) is a survivor of child sex trafficking and an advocate for survivors of all forms of human trafficking. In 2011, Holly submitted joint testimony to Congress with labour trafficking survivor, Ima Matul, in support of reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Holly also testified before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations on the connection between sporting events and sex trafficking. In 2015, Holly testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of two bills: Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. Another narrative by Holly can be found in the archive.
Twenty-year-old 'Katya' was trafficked from the Ukraine to the United States in 2004, and enslaved in a strip club in Detroit. She escaped in February 2005. The escape led to the arrest and conviction of her traffickers. In 2007 she told her story to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, using as assumed name, Katya, for her own protection. Another narrative by Katya can be found in the archive.
In 1993, Dina Chan was exploited in northern Cambodia. Women are internally trafficked for sexual exploitation in Cambodia, usually from rural areas to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and other secondary cities. Cambodian women are also brought to Thailand and Malaysia for commercial sexual exploitation. An orphan who got into debt for overdue rent payments and tuition fees, Dina was trafficked from Phnom Penh to Stroeung Treng at the age of 17. Her narrative describes police corruption, starvation, and gang rape.
She points out the irony that she fought for others’ freedoms as a soldier, “only to become enslaved,” and rejects the response of “pity” to her story. She also issues a call for prostitutes to unionize and “fight for basic rights.” On behalf of herself and her “sisters,” Dina demands recognition of her humanity: “We are people, we are women and we want to be treated with respect.”
Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew grew up in the U.S. foster care system. Between the ages of 10 to 17 she was subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in Oakland, California, on the streets and in strip clubs and massage parlours.
She now serves on the boards of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), and the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, and is a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She founded the Still Alive Initiative in 2009, which provides mentoring and counseling for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, and consulting and training for government agencies, institutions, and nonprofits on youth policy and service provision.
In 2004, at age 16, Asia Graves was trafficked in Boston and spent two and half years trapped in sexual exploitation.
In 2009 she testified during a six-day trial that resulted in the conviction of two men at the centre of a major child-trafficking operation. They were both sentenced to 25 years in prison. Before testifying, she had moved to Tennessee, fearing for her safety, and returned to Boston only to speak at trial. In 2012 she moved to Washington DC and began work as the Maryland Program Coordinator and Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls, a nonprofit group fighting sexual exploitation.
Almasi was enslaved within Kenya. She was deceived by a childhood friend who said she could work as a cleaner in Mombasa. But instead she was taken to a house that served as a brothel and enslaved for six months. She escaped by jumping out of a moving vehicle. She later discovered that she was HIV positive. As part of the process of narrating her story, she also created artwork. Her narrative explains the images of a wing and a tortoise. Almasi is a fictional name to protect the narrator's identity.
In 2001, Flor Molina was 28 years old and had just lost her youngest child. She was working two jobs in Puebla, Mexico, but not making enough money to feed and clothe her surviving children. At night, she took sewing classes. When her sewing teacher told her about a job in the United States, she accepted. But a woman confiscated her documents at the border. She was taken to Los Angeles, and immediately put to work in a sewing factory. There she worked 18-hour-days, was subjected to physical abuse, and wasn’t allowed to leave the building unattended. She escaped after 40 days and was helped by CAST, an LA-based NGO. She told her story in 2010, as part of the California legislature's hearings on the California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law requires companies doing business in California with more than $100 million in annual global profits to report their efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. Flor is now a member of CAST’s Survivors Caucus, a group of women from numerous countries who escaped forced labor in the United States. Another narrative by Flor can be found in the archive.
Faith was taken from her home country of Zimbabwe into South Africa in 2004. Like many young Zimbabwean women, she was trafficked through the false promise of employment. Other Zimbabwean women are tricked into slavery through promises of marriage and education, and some are simply abducted. Zimbabwean women are also forced into prostitution in the UK, the US and South East Asia, and some are trafficked internally from rural to urban areas for forced domestic labor. High levels of poverty and unemployment are factors in Zimbabwe’s trafficking problem, and the low status of women in Zimbabwean society perpetuates gender violence. The situation worsened after 2005, when the Zimbabwean government began Operation Murambatsvina (“Operation Clean-Up”), a campaign to forcibly clear slum areas. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and left an estimated 223,000 children vulnerable to trafficking. In South Africa, where Faith was still in slavery as she narrated her story, the number of trafficking victims remains unknown but the International Organization for Migration reports that trafficked women and children arrive from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia (trafficked through Zimbabwe), and that several major criminal groups in South Africa now traffic women: Bulgarian and Thai syndicates, the Russian and the Chinese Mafi, and African criminal organizations, mainly from West Africa.
An orphan who was tricked into leaving her village in northern Nigeria in 1998, Joy Ubi-Ubi fashions the turning-point from freedom to slavery as the moment when she drank blood during a voodoo ritual. Afterwards, once Joy was in Europe, her captors said this ritual meant the “juju” would kill her if she tried to escape. As Joy explains, she was thereby “forced to do the work” of a prostitute. She was enslaved for three years in the deprived Bijlmer district of Amsterdam—home to many West African immigrants. But the narrative also includes a parallel turning-point from slavery to freedom: the moment when Joy was asked to drink something again: a liquid that would make her bleed, and miscarry. This time, she refused to take the drink. Not wanting to abort her pregnancy, she made the decision to escape, then was helped by a West African Pentecostal minister who operates mission houses in Amsterdam. This use of native West African voodoo is a common feature of the slave experience for Nigerian women held in Western Europe (of whom there are around 10,000). The women and girls undergo an initiation ritual before leaving their country: for Joy this included the marking of her face and hands, and laying hands on a “juju” (statue), as well as drinking blood. They are often made to swear to the gods that they will work hard for their employers, and will never mention their real names, run away, or contact the police. Captors threaten the women with punishment by the gods for any disobedience, and warn that any attempt to escape will awaken a curse on their families. Once in Europe they are drugged, then resold. Held in brothels, they have sex with customers but are not paid: Joy notes that all money changed hands before the clients reached her room. Any pregnancies are aborted.
In February 2016, at a hearing entitled Ending Modern Slavery: Now is the Time, "Leah" testified before the Senate Foreign Relates Committee. She was enslaved in forced prostitition for seven years, and trafficked across the United States, in South Carolina, Florida, Texas, California, Louisiana, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio and Colorado. "Leah" is now an advocate for A21, an organization working against modern slavery.
Karla Jacinto Romero was trafficked by a 22-year-old man at the age of 12, and enslaved until the age of 16 in brothels, roadside motels and homes in Guadalajara and other cities in Mexico. She estimates that she was raped 43,000 times, by 30 people a day for seven days a week during four years. She gave birth at 15 to a baby. The baby's father, a pimp, used the child to further control Karla, threatening to kill the baby if Karla tried to escape or resist.Karla was rescued during an anti-trafficking operation in Mexico City in 2008. She has shared her antislavery message with the US Congress, the Mexican House of Representatives, and the Vatican. Her testimony was used as evidence in support for H.R. 515 or Megan's Law that mandates U.S. authorities share information pertaining to American child sex offenders when these convicts attempt to travel abroad.
In the north of India, there lies a small city called Siliguri at the foothills of the Himalayas. While this region boasts stunning scenery and a rich mix of cultures, it is also known for something much more sinister: the epicenter of South Asia’s human trafficking crisis. Often lured by false promises of job prospects, thousands of women and girls a year are taken from here or brought from nearby countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar by international criminal organizations, who then force them into prostitution in brothels across the country. Others end up in forced labour as domestic workers, while men and boys are enslaved in agricultural work. To raise awareness for this critical issue, the artist Joel Bergner (Joel Artista) partnered with four local Bengali artists, Anindya, Saptarshi, Santanu and Binod, to create a public mural as part of the International Anti-Human Trafficking Conclave.
The main image in the mural is inspired by a self-portrait photograph by Sangeeta, a young woman from this area who is a survivor of trafficking. In her photograph, she chose to portray herself with a hand grabbing her ankle while she reaches out to another hand for support. The artists then painted her sari filled with depictions of the stories of modern slavery. The mural, painted in a highly visible wall in the entrance to a shopping centre, plays an important role in educating the public about human trafficking. It aims to help residents to recognise it when it happens in their community, know who to inform, be wary of job offers from strangers, and support returning survivors, as they often face intense social stigma. This project was organized through the Indian anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini, the Meridian International Center and the US Consulate in Kolkata. The conclave closed with a dance group of trafficking survivors performing in front of the mural along with other local performers, and speeches by dignitaries.
Though most of the slaves in the US have been trafficked from 35 or more countries, some are American citizens. Christine, of European and American Indian ancestry, was born and trafficked in Minnesota—which is currently a sex trafficking pipeline to larger cities, like Chicago. In fact, incidents of sex trafficking have been discovered in all 50 US states, involving victims born and raised in the US, as well as those trafficked from abroad. Girls as young as 12 years old are forced to have sex seven days a week, with 10-15 people a day, and meet a quota of $500-1000 a night. Most likely, almost half of people currently enslaved in the US are in the sex industry. As Christine notes, she was “one such girl”—trafficked by her family as a child. Her narrative lays out the gender dynamics of slavery, whereby traffickers and pimps attempt to divide and conquer women: “They rape us in front of our mothers and grandmothers; they rape our grandmothers and mothers in front of us…They want us to dislike and distrust other women and girls.” But Christine counters this attempt at division with her assertion of “a bond deeper than blood to the very women and girls they tried to make you hate,” and with her first-person plural voice: “we endure…we are women in search of freedom.”
This piece of art by Hank Willis Thomas is based on the Brookes slave ship image which was made famous by the British abolitionist campaign against transatlantic slavery. The artist said of the piece that “Racism is the most successful advertising campaign of all time... Africans have hundreds if not thousands of years of culture. Having all of these people packed into ships and then told they’re all the same, reducing them to a single identity—that’s absolute power.”
One major trope in 19th-century antislavery visual culture was the auction block, which featured in the Liberator masthead from 1831 to 1865 as a scene with crowds of onlookers. In 21st-century antislavery imagery, the auction block is back. In 2010, the Task Force on Human Trafficking opened an installation called “Woman to Go,” featuring real women sitting or standing on blocks behind glass in a shopping center in Tel Aviv, each with a price tag and barcode.
In contrast to the trope that brands individuals’ experiences onto their backs, the No Project released a poster in 2012 titled “Wearing Her Story,” made by the artist Ismini Black. A woman’s dress hangs alongside carcasses in a butcher’s window. There are letters cut out of the dress and the words are impossible to piece together. By replacing a woman’s body with just her dress, the poster refuses to inscribe slavery’s story onto her flesh. She might wear her story like a removable item of clothing, but it is not the last word on her total identity. Instead it remains impossible to grasp and therefore consume, unlike the poster’s chunks of meat.
After several months in slavery, Beatrice Fernando reached the point of no return. Standing on a fourth-floor balcony in Beirut, Lebanon, she realized there was “no other way to get home” but to “dive backwards.” In a recent interview she explained of her decision to step off the balcony: “When we take a step against slavery, the world will take another step.”In 1980, at the age of 23, Beatrice had responded to an advertisement for work as a housemaid in Lebanon. She left her home country of Sri Lanka, intending to send money to her parents and her three-year-old son. But in Beirut she became a domestic slave. She was locked inside a home, starved, beaten, never paid, and forbidden from communicating with the outside world. Guards were instructed to shoot her if she tried to leave. After she reached a turning-point and escaped by jumping from the apartment’s fourth floor, she spent 21 days in a coma. Doctors told her that she was paralyzed. After 14 months in hospital she recovered from the paralysis and returned to Sri Lanka. In 1989 she came to live and work in the US.