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.
The system of trokosi (“wife of the gods”) has existed in the Volta region of rural Ghana for centuries. During the late 1990s, numbers reached to around 6000 trokosi, most native to Ghana. It also exists in Togo, Benin, and southwestern Nigeria. Fetish priests who run shrines insist that only by handing over a virgin daughter—typically aged between eight and 15—can families atone for alleged offences committed by their relatives or ancestors. These offences range from murder to petty theft. Once the girls are handed over, priests turn them into slaves and impregnate them repeatedly. They are beaten when they try to escape, and are denied education, food, and basic health services. Most remain in slavery for between three and ten years, some for their whole lives. If they die, the family must offer another virgin daughter, and if they are ever released, former trokosis are considered unmarriageable. Any children born to trokosi become slaves, and trokosi are passed on to the next priest upon one priest’s death. Until July 2002, Patience was a trokosi, brought from Togo to a shrine in Ghana at the age of ten. She was released by International Needs-Ghana, which has liberated several thousand trokosi from shrines across southeastern Ghana since 1996. The trokosi practice was banned in Ghana in 1998, but enforcement of the ban has been ineffective: officials are hesitant to restrict the practice because they view it as an integral part of their religious beliefs, and fetish priests claim the right to preserve their forefathers’ culture. Togo and Benin have done little to stop the practice, and practitioners in Ghana bring girls from these countries. Several former trokosis now campaign against the practice.
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.”
Angela Guanzon was brought to the United States from Bacolod City, Philippines, in 2005, to work at an elderly care home in California. But upon arrival she was told she owed $12,000 in fees, to be deducted before wages. She worked 18 hours a day and slept on hallway floors for two and half years.
The FBI rescued Angela and several other workers in 2008. Angela testified against her trafficker in criminal court and the woman received a five-year prison sentence. Angela is now a survivor-organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a nonprofit organization that provided her with shelter and legal assistance.
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.
Shandra Woworuntu graduated from college with a major in Finance and Bank Management in her native Indonesia. Looking for an opportunity to work in the US, she responded to an advertisement for a job that promised a six month position in the hotel industry in Chicago. But the agent who met her at New York City’s JFK airport drove her to the brothel and took control of her passport and identification. When she tried to protest, he put a gun to her head. She was forced to work for 24 hours a day at different brothels throughout New York and Connecticut and eventually escaped by jumping out of a bathroom window in Brooklyn. Her traffickers were prosecuted and Shandra now works with anti-human trafficking advocacy groups and is a legislative lobbyist in Washington DC.
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.
Evelyn Chumbow was taken from her family in Cameroon at age 10 by a man who convinced her parents that she would get a better education in the United States. Instead, she was forced to work as a slave in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, doing manual labor for her captor and being verbally and physically abused.In her narrative, which she delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she asked Congress to address labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking, and referenced a House bill that addresses only sex trafficking.
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.
In 1999, Roseline Odine reached the turning-point where she could be a slave no longer: “That’s it. That’s it,” she said. Roseline’s narrative features a long escape sequence as she moved through the turning-point from slavery to freedom. Roseline spent two and a half years as a domestic slave in Washington DC. Promised an American education and a babysitting jobs, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the ages of 14. Upon arrival in the US she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and was beaten and verbally abused. Roseline was also sexually harassed. She recounts a process of indoctrination and mind-control that eventually meant she “didn’t want to talk to the cop because of what she [her enslaver] had told me in the house—that America’s no good.” After escaping, Roseline met Louis Etongwe, a cousin of the man who drove her to safety. She told him that there were two more Cameroonian slaves in the area. Louis helped them to escape, then took tapes of all three girls to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Roseline’s captors, Louisa and Kevin, were eventually convicted, sentenced to nine years in prison, and told to pay her $100,000 in restitution. Kevin was also convicted of attempted sexual assault.
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.”
Christina Elangwe spent five years as a domestic slave in Washington DC, held by Cameroonians. Promised an American education and a babysitting job, she was tricked into leaving her family in Cameroon at the age of 17. Upon arrival in the US, she worked long hours for no money, was not sent to school, and were beaten and verbally abused.A man called Louis Etongwe helped Christina and two other women to escape, then took tapes of all three to Cameroon to show their parents and gather evidence against the traffickers. Christina’s captors received five years probation and were ordered to pay her $180,000 in back wages. So far she has received about $2000.
Maria Suarez marks the turning-point in her decades-long journey from slavery to freedom as the moment when a bird knocked at her window. She had no idea she about to be freed, but when the bird came she knew that she “was going to have some good news.” She waited, and minutes later officials told her she was going to be free. At the age of 15, in 1976, Maria immigrated legally to the US from Michoacan, Mexico, with her father. She was soon approached on the street in Los Angeles by a woman offering work as a cleaner. But instead the woman sold her to 68-year-old Anselmo Covarrubias for $200, and Covarrubias made her his domestic slave. For five years he held her in bondage in his house in the Los Angeles suburb of Azusa, raped and beat her, and threatened her with black arts wizardry. Maria believed that he read her mind, possessed her soul, and would hurt her family if she told anyone about the abuse. In August 1981, Covarrubias was bludgeoned to death with a table leg by Pedro Soto, who was renting a converted garage on the property. Maria washed the weapon and hid it under the house, as directed by Soto. She was arrested, along with Soto and his wife. Soto was convicted of first-degree murder, and his wife was convicted of soliciting murder and being an accessory to a felony. Maria was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced to 25 years to life, and incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona. Officials eventually confirmed that she suffered from battered woman’s syndrome — allowed as a legal defense in California after in 1992 — and she was paroled in 2003, after five years in slavery, and 22.5 years in prison. But Maria still wasn’t free: according to federal law, non-citizens convicted of violent crimes must be deported upon their release, and she was taken directly to a federal detention facility. She spent more than five months fighting deportation, then was certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa—a new status for victims of slavery and trafficking in the US. She was freed in May 2004.
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.
In 1999, Vi was one of about 250 workers brought from Vietnam on a labor contract. A South Korean businessman named Kil Soo Lee had bought a garment factory near Pago Pago, in American Samoa, and required sewing machine operators. Vi was recruited by a Vietnamese government-owned enterprise called Tourism Company 12, and told she was heading for the US. Like the other recruits, she paid $5000 to cover the cost of airfare and work permits, and signed a three-year contract in exchange for monthly paychecks of around $400, plus free meals and housing, and return air fare. But upon arrival in American Samoa, the recruits were forced to work to pay off smuggling fees. Lee confiscated their passports to prevent them from escaping, and quickly stopped paying them altogether, though kept charging them for room and board. He withheld food, ordered beatings, and forced them to work 14-18 hour days. Female employees were sexually assaulted, and those who became pregnant were forced to have abortions or return to Vietnam. Vi’s story of slavery is also one of prosecution. In 2000, two workers at Lee’s factory sought legal help from attorneys. On behalf of more than 250 factory workers, the attorneys filed a pro-bono class-action lawsuit against Daewoosa and the Vietnamese government. The case was publicized by human rights groups, and the two workers who asked for legal help disappeared. Their bodies were never found. Then, in November 2000, a group of workers refused to return to their sewing machines, and a fight ensued between workers and factory guards. During the incident, one woman lost an eye and two other workers were hospitalized. This gained the attention of local law enforcement and the FBI Field Office in Honolulu began investigating Daewoosa in February 2001. Enforcing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), federal agents closed down the factory and arrested Lee on charges of involuntary servitude and forced labor. He was deported to Hawaii in March 2001. Though the recruiting companies and the Vietnamese government refused to pay for the workers’ flights home, they left American Samoa. Some returned to Vietnam and more than 200, including Vi, were flown to the US and admitted as potential witnesses for the prosecution at Lee’s trial. In April 2002, the High Court of American Samoa ordered the factory and two Vietnamese government-owned labor agencies to pay $3.5 million to the workers. Lee claimed bankruptcy. In February 2003, he was found guilty of involuntary servitude, extortion, money laundering and bribery, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The court also ordered him to pay $1.8 million in restitution to the workers. Vi, and the other Vietnamese workers who came to the US, applied for “T” visas, issued to victims of trafficking as a result of the TVPA.