• Alex Davies
  • 7 December 2012

“Statistics engage the mind but stories engage the heart”

This was the statement from Douglas Alexander, Scottish MP, at the start of Day Two of the Thomson Reuters Foundation ‘Trust Women’ conference in London on Wednesday, who had the perhaps unenviable position of sitting on a panel of four women, all with fascinating stories to tell of their experiences of slavery and trafficking, under the banner ‘women for sale’.

Over the course of an hour-and-a-half, an activist, a former domestic slave, a pro bono lawyer and a prostitute all recounted their differing experiences of domestic and sexual slavery, human trafficking, prostitution, poverty and violence, and brought home one unique and overriding message – this isn’t a problem confined to the third world, or the result of poverty and degradation.

As Minh Dang, a US-born, middle class woman emotionally professed, not all poor people sell their children. People who employ unpaid slaves are not doing it out of financial destitution. The trafficking industry is alive and kicking in the US, in Europe, and throughout the world, and there are more recognised ‘slaves’ in the world today than there were ten years ago when the first legal and Government-backed campaigns began to tackle the issue.

Minh has spent 70% of her life to date in the slavery of her parents, wealthy middle class people who chose to enslave their child, even as an adult. She escaped her servitude eight years ago and has since tirelessly campaigned against sex trafficking in the US. She maintains that to get even close to tackling the problem we must first understand the mind of the traffickers, and that financial incentives are not always the primary motivator behind the trade.

“If we do not feel whole within ourselves, we feel the need to enslave another,” she maintained, thus broadening the issue into a social and emotional problem, as opposed to one that strictly revolves around poverty and desperation.

Tsvetelina Ivanova, a trafficking survivor from Bulgaria, agreed, saying that no amount of legislation and policy-making will make any difference until the victims and survivors of the industry are engaged in the problem, lending their experiences and understanding to the solution.

At first glance, the story of Tsvetelina, who was ‘rescued’ by a client, and is now in the process of suing her pimp, seems uplifting and satisfying – a success story of triumph over adversity. However, escaping the clutches of her sex trafficker was not the happy ending of this particular story – Tsvetelina cannot find work under the Dutch administration (she was trafficked to Amsterdam) as anything other than a – legal – sex worker. As she explained her scenario, the irony and sense of injustice was palpable in the room, and one audience member called upon the business people in the room to “give this woman a job!” Obviously there are no simple answers to a complex problem, and indeed the slavery trade has been in existence for 5,000 years.

A cultural shift in attitude is hugely important, maintained Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap (“on our own” in Hindi), and is the underlying message behind her company’s campaign “Cool men don’t buy sex”. Until attitudes change, and everyone agrees that owning another human being is not acceptable, little progress will be made. There needs to be more accountability from all of us, a point later raised in a separate discussion on corruption, in which one audience member recounted her experience of being able to purchase child pornography “alongside the apples and oranges” at the local market in a town in the Philippines. Turning our heads and presuming the practice only occurs in faraway developing companies where corruption is rife and nothing can be done, is tantamount to condoning a crime.

Douglas Alexander talked further of the “geography of poverty”, and how the trend towards British aid to developing countries is on the wane. From next year, less aid will be going from the UK to India, because of a growing perception that, due to multinational companies outsourcing services to the continent, and its growing space programme, justification can no longer be made for UK taxpayers’ money to be directed for development purposes. Yet, parts of India still live in abject poverty, and its culture of child prostitution is increasing.

Later, a separate panel talked about how corruption particularly affects women (as the link between corruption and poverty is clear, and women tend to be the poorest), and the exact money that is given from rich nations to poor is channelled into corrupt activities, never reaching the people who need it most.

Audience members highlighted tales of billions of pounds of foreign aid being ‘lost’, and how women who were appointed to the Government – thus seemingly giving females a voice – later turned out to be the wives of the elected leader. Promoting women into positions of authority, when they are merely the puppets of those in control, is perhaps the biggest abuse of power of all.

The mission of the Trust Women conference is firstly to inspire, to debate – and then call to action – on the issues of women’s rights, and it is the stories that were told throughout the two days that resonated most with the audience, and engaged us most strongly.

If there was a reason for this conference being aimed primarily at women, it was perhaps this last point – engaging and inspiring hearts is as effective as minds – and the empathy, intelligence and understanding in the room will no doubt go a long way to fulfil on that action.