When you think about slavery, what comes to mind? I used to think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 150+ years ago, an abomination ended by William Wilberforce and a group of passionate, determined abolitionists. When I thought of slavery, I thought of the movie Amazing Grace, I thought of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and I thought it was over. I thought the world didn’t need abolitionists anymore.
My ignorance, compounded by the the ignorance of everyone else, has allowed slavery to fester and boil and grow into a $32 billion a year industry. More children, women, and men are held in slavery now than during the entire duration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are now 27 million people enslaved, and sex trafficking is the fastest growing industry in the world and will soon outgrow drug trafficking.
Women are trafficked across borders for sexual slavery, and also for domestic servitude. They work in homes cleaning, cooking, ironing, scrubbing, from 5am to 10pm with no pay, and are beaten by the wives and raped by the husbands. This happens to young children, too.
Men are promised wages, but exploited instead, finding themselves in bonded labor, working in construction, stones, and bricks, where they work for 14+ hours a day in dangerous conditions with kilns. If they try to escape, they are beaten and their families are threatened or sold. There are debt slaves, where men are in debt bondage for generations, unable to work their way out. Children are born into slavery. Pakistani boys are signed into bonded labor from age 13-30. In Pakistan, 250,000 kids live and work in brick kilns in complete social isolation. I think about how much happened in my life between 13 and 30 and shudder at the thought of missing all of it to live in slavery for 17 years.
Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, which supplies more shrimp to the U.S. than any other region, is in large part powered by bonded labor. Workers labor 20 hours per day to produce 40 pounds of shrimp. They are threatened with violence or rape if they try to escape.
Tens of thousands of children mine mica every day for the glittery stuff in our makeup. In China, soccer ball manufacturers work up to 21 hours a day for a month straight. And here’s a sobering fact about my love of chocolate: 75% of the world’s cocoa beans come from small farms in West Africa. In Ivory Coast alone, 200,000 child slaves pick 40% of the world’s cocoa beans. They work the fields every day, many against their will, and they don’t even know what chocolate is.
Colton is a capacitor found in electronics (The only capacitor I’d ever heard of before researching modern day slavery was the flux capacitor, which of course will send me back to the future.). A reporter interviewed a U.S. State Department official about colton mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, “The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.”
The U.S. Department of Labor reported on the countries and industries with the highest child or forced labor rates. Some of the worst industries include gold, cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, bricks, coffee, cattle, rice, garments, diamonds, coal, cocoa, and carpets. In Uzbekistan, 1.4 million children are forced to work in cotton fields.
I’m a mom. Reading about what happens to children around the world makes me shake with rage and cry with desperation. I press my lips together in a hard line, just like my daddy does when he’s mad, and I stare at my computer screen with brow furrowed. I can’t fathom children, my kids, working all day every day, with no way out and no way up and no future and no hope.
I’m a wife. I can’t imagine my husband working all day every day with no pay and the constant threat that he may be beaten and I might be raped. I ache at the thought of his shoulders stooped and his spirit broken. The man I love, broken and owned.
I’m a woman. I can’t comprehend watching as my children are trafficked into sex slavery as I’m sold and violated. Raped over and over every day by evil men who see me as property. My family destroyed by people who think it’s okay to own other people. I can’t find a word strong enough to describe the hopelessness and desperation.
So that men can have a feeling of domination. So that we can have chocolate. So that we can buy our twentieth teeshirt. So that we can have glittery faces and glittery jewelry. All of this, all the pain and horror, for money.
We the consumers are generating the demand. We need to consume differently. We need to rise up, use our voices to speak for those who can’t, and make it loud. If there’s modern day slavery, then we need to become modern day abolitionists.
What’s a modern day abolitionist look like for me, a child-toting, minivan-driving, toilet paper shopping mama in the heart of the ‘burbs? Well, I do a lot of the buying in our family. And mamas everywhere just like me do a lot of the buying for their families. So what if we all start paying more attention to what we’re buying and from where it’s coming? I also do a lot of the talking in our family. And mamas everywhere just like me do a lot of the talking in their families. So what if we all start spreading the word and raising awareness and asking our favorite brands to look into their supply chains and teaching our children about how to shop responsibly?
Maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, we could make a big difference. Maybe someday, when our grandchildren’s grandchildren think about slavery, they’ll think about us. We can be the Wilberforces and the Douglasses and the Lincolns and the Tubmans of our generation.
Last February, I attended an event about freedom at Passion City Church, in Atlanta, Georgia. International Justice Mission was there, along with Slavery Footprint and many other awesome local and national organizations. They erected a ginormous hand into the Atlanta skyline, symbolizing freedom for the 27 million in slavery. The hand was covered with items typically produced by slaves. I saw soccer balls, coffee, fabric, dolls, teddy bears, bricks…and the thing that stuck out most to me was ornaments. I felt my insides contract as I stared in horror at Christmas ornaments running up the freedom hand sculpture. No, surely not. Surely the very things we use to decorate our homes to celebrate our Savior’s birth aren’t made by people in slavery. No. It’s too horrible to fathom. I think at that moment, in the pit of my stomach, “Slave-Free Christmas Challenge” was born.
Who wants to be an abolitionmama with me? Let’s use our mom-voices to help the voiceless moms, dads, and kids around the world. Let’s raise our daughter-voices, son-voices, daddy-voices in our classrooms and our coffee shops, our offices and our online arenas. Let’s refuse to celebrate Jesus with toys, clothes, food, and decorations made by slaves living in despair.
I’m not usually big on out-of-context Scripture quoting, but right after I wrote this post, I opened my Bible and the first passage on which my eyes focused leapt off the page at me and gave me a brain-whoa. “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” Amos 2:6b-7a. The more I read the Bible, the more I see the depth of love that God has for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the slave. They are extra-close to His heart, and I want to celebrate Christmas by blessing the poor, not exploiting them. I want to spread J-O-Y: Justice and Opportunity can be Your gift. Justice from Oppression, Yes! Justice and Opportunity through You. So, merry Christmas to all, and to all, a Slave-Free Christmas.