Slavery conjures up pictures of black people shipped in bunks and tied to chains; and sounds of whips on their backs at the hands of white owners. Rarely does it invoke images of women and girls, chained to beds, held in bondage as sex slaves.
The kind of dark thoughts that creep into people’s minds at midnight – are they ever about imagining life as a sex slave? Does anyone ever wonder what life would be like awake all night, abused, exhausted, bruised, dejected, knowing that tomorrow promises no change? Does anyone not subjected to this horror lose sleep imagining a life of perpetual pain, humiliation, degradation, men forcing themselves upon you, thousands of dollars made off your body, with none for you, but all for your pimp?
Yet this slavery is not history but a cruel part of current global events.
The inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade stirred the abolitionist movement more than a century ago, and with the exception of Mauritania where Arab Muslim ‘bidanes’ still own black slaves ‘haratines’ blacks are no longer used as slaves because they are blacks.
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes on the other hand knows no race. It discriminates against women because they are women; be they black, Indian, Arabic, Caucasian, Asian, white or another race. Sexual slavery plagues women from all continents especially Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
Women exposed to extreme poverty are the most vulnerable although other women may be deceived, sold or abducted into sexual slavery. Stop Sexual Slavery, a global entity fighting sexual slavery contends that sex traffickers make $3.2 billion annually. For such a profitable industry, moral outrage without committed societal transformation and government commitment will never be sufficient to end it.
Many governments close their eyes to the destruction of thousands of girls’ and women’s lives. Is it because the victims are women? Has slavery suddenly become less appalling because men are predominantly the physical and financial beneficiaries of the sale of women’s bodies?
It is crystal clear that sexual slavery occurs in larger proportions than the Atlantic slave trade ever did. 100,000 children are forced to become sex workers each year, injected with drugs until they become addicts, wasted and debilitated. The Not for Sale Campaign estimates that more than 30 million people are held in sexual slavery today.
There are no William Wilberforces standing up defying houses of Assembly and forcing crackdowns on this practice. Instead many legislators believe this is prostitution-the oldest trade in the world-not worth making a fuss over. But how does an 8-year-old choose to be a prostitute?
No Kings and Sheikhs are passing decrees to end sexual slavery; instead during my stay in Cairo, I heard stories of sheikhs from Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the Emiratis who solely visited to buy sex.
Sexual slavery is rampant in places where there is no rule of law such as Northern Uganda,the DRC, Mauritania and particularly Zimbabwe.
The feminisation of poverty is evident in the capture and use of young Zimbabwean women as sex slaves in South Africa, attempting to escape the dire economic straits in Zimbabwe. In February 2012, the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, through BBC News, reported that Northern Ireland was becoming the fastest growing sex industry in England with most victims coming from Zimbabwe, Ghana, China and Slovakia.
Zimbabwe’s geographical positioning lends itself to be used as a source, transit and destination point for victims of trafficking from and to Asia, Europe and other African countries, according to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report from June 2009.
Still, the Zimbabwean government refuses to ratify anti-trafficking conventions. An anti-trafficking bill has been pending approval in parliament for years. To prosecute apprehended offenders, an ad-hoc approach utilising the Children’s Act, the Sexual Offences Act and the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act has to be used. In the same vein the Criminal Code criminalises prostitution and harasses victims–masking trafficking as prostitution and subjecting victims to inhumane living conditions.
The Zimbabwean government and many others do not make significant efforts to fully comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking. Why isn’t there an outcry as huge as that against black slavery? Would the issue be taken more seriously if men were sex slaves?
Zimbabwe needs to sign and ratify the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, develop clear policies encompassing public education and awareness, name and shame those involved, prosecute offenders and offer psycho-social support for victims.
Only then will we make progress toward abolishing another form of slavery, one that puts us all to shame.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.