From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Reframing Contemporary Slavery

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

Human trafficking and contemporary slavery are important issues that have gotten a whole lot of attention over the past decade. Largely as a result of activism in the United States, countries all over the world have been scrambling to bring their laws into line with US benchmarks. International aid agencies have added this issue to their portfolio. International donors are giving money to support these efforts. And, perhaps most the most exciting thing for a social movement scholar like myself, is to see the issue of contemporary slavery emerge as a full-blown social movement. It’s got all the moving parts—a clear and compelling message, major support, the public’s attention, and changing norms and policies all over the world.

Taking stock of the progress made over the last decade or so, it seems like a good time to sit down and figure out not only what we’ve gotten right, but where there is still some work to be done. A while ago I had the opportunity to do just that with an impressive group of scholars, including my colleague Alison Brysk. The findings were just released as a book, but I think it’s worth highlighting some of the points here.

* From Trafficking to Contemporary Slavery*
To begin with, I think it’s important to emphasize that the abolitionist social movement we’re seeing right now is against contemporary forms of slavery. It’s a movement against slavery in all its forms. One of slavery’s forms is human trafficking (the movement of people for the purpose of enslavement). While “sex trafficking” and human trafficking gets most of the attention, it’s important to realize that slavery is just as much about people who can’t leave their communities, as people who leave and are exploited along the way.

* From Prostitution to Power*
With so much attention on sexual exploitation, it is important to recognize that, as we argue in our book, “commercial sex is … an explicit commodification of female reproductive labor that turns some women into unwilling objects rather than self-determining persons. The common element is that individuals lack agency and control of exploitive social systems: human rights.” A human rights approach to abolition involves restoring agency and control over social systems to the marginalized.

*From Rescue to Rights*
When most people first hear about contemporary slavery their first response is usually outrage and determination to _do something_: “Tell me which door to kick down, and who to rescue.” This is a healthy empathetic response, but it is important to also recognize the fact that trafficked and enslaved people are victimized because they are powerless, and the surest path to both prevention and eradication is _empowerment_. For this reason we emphasize that “international responses to trafficking should focus on remedying and restoring rights; ideally through representation.”

* New Ideas Matter *
We didn’t mention this in our book, but I’m increasingly convinced of the importance of introducing new ideas about how people should relate to one another. My research is with slaveholders in rural India. Social movements are forcing them to come face to face with the idea that their slaves are people too—deserving of the social, political and legal rights accorded to all Indian citizens. They are also having to come face to face with their former slaves as voters, employees and wage laborers. Democracy is not a new idea to these slaveholders, but the idea that democracy should extend to _everyone_ is a new idea that has been introduced by local social movement actors.

The bottom line is clear: we have an unprecedented opportunity to eradicate slavery once and for all. But this is only possible if we take a step back and focus on the big dynamics that keep slavery, and all forms of exploitation running. In our book we focus on the importance of identifying power structures and encouraging political representation. The path forward—for students, activists, scholars and policy folks—will require us to think critically, analyze systemically, and act holistically. In this way I am confident that we can secure emancipation, not just for one generation, but for the next as well.


  1. Please include us in needs for service providers We also have many needs . We also need the community to help us

Speak Your Mind