July 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 07
Finding the courage to confront child slavery
By Debbie Wolfe | Special to Christian Week
World Vision negotiates with brick factory owners so children can have occasional breaks at this drop-in. Child workers from the local brick factory come to this World Vision drop-in for a break and a meal. Photo by Debbie Wolfe
In a factory in Cambodia, a girl feeds lumps of clay into the churning steel jaws of a brick-making machine. It tears the clay from her bare fingers, chewing it with a grinding shriek. I approach slowly, not wanting to distract her. Just a few days ago, a girl at a nearby factory lost her arm to a similar machine.
When I ask permission to take her photo for the newspaper, Vanna smiles softly.
"I'm going to be famous," she laughs, her eyes bright. In that moment, she could be any 16-year-old girl in Canada.
Except she's not. For the past five years, Vanna has worked alongside her family, dawn to dusk, in the suffocating heat. There are no days off. And no matter how many bricks she makes, there's barely enough money to survive.
This is what modern-day slavery looks like. We're not talking about fetching water or helping in the fields. Child slavery is dirty, dangerous and degrading in ways that most of us can barely imagine. World Vision has just launched a three-year campaign called End Child Slavery, and I've travelled to Cambodia and Thailand to learn as much as I can about the practice.
On the streets of Phnom Penh, thousands of children pick through garbage dumps to earn 50 cents per day. Broken bottles and jagged bits of metal are among their treasuresand they have the torn skin to show for it. I meet these children with their bright smiles at a night outreach program for street children. It is fascinating to see them creep out of the darkness to gather in pools of lantern light. They have come to hear about health and safety.
On this night, they are learning how to elude a child traffickersomeone who tricks children into leaving home for the promise of a good job. The promised job never materializes, and children are forced to work in any way the trafficker chooses. Most times, they are forced into slavery in factories, private homes, or fish processing plants. Other times, they're trafficked for sex.
I came to Asia prepared to learn more about how girls are sexually exploited. I braced myself for the sickening sight of children standing on the street, waiting to be "purchased" by overseas tourists. The other day, I spent some time at a trauma recovery centre, with girls so small I couldn't believe they survived their experiences.
What I hadn't realized is that boys are also targeted. I try to picture my 10-year-old son huddled on the floor of a hotel room, waiting in terror for the next adult male customer to come in. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it.
It would be so easy to be overwhelmed by the horror of the issues and the magnitude of the problems. Yet we also see many encouraging things. We visit a slum in Phnom Penh, where the community is protecting its boys from sexual slavery through a program called "My Son." Think of it as a Cambodian version of Amber Alert in a neighbourhood with no electricity for flashing billboards.
Laughing and shouting, the boys tumble out of their homes each afternoon to play sports. Afterward, exhausted but happy, they flop down on the sand to swap news of any suspicious-looking characters in the area. Even the smallest child has the power to speak up. If something's not right, the parents are alerted, and whole community circles to protect its children.
Learning about child slavery takes a lot of courageand a big piece of your heart. There have been many moments on this journey when I've had to step away from the group, take a big breath and shove back tears. I'll never be able to get these children out of my mind.
But if you have both courage and heart, you can make a difference. Get informed; speak up for these children. Together we can put an end to child slavery.
Child slavery statistics
An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year for labour and sexual exploitation. (International Labour Organization)
For every one trafficking victim forced into prostitution, nine others are forced into work in places like factories, sweatshops, boats, and farms. (International Labour Organization)
Human trafficking is the third most profitable organized crime after drugs and arms trafficking. (United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime)
Debbie Wolfe is a communications officer with World Vision Canada. For more information about the End Child Slavery campaign, visit www.endchildslavery.ca.