"No society or culture teaches the commodification of human beings without economic impetus to do so."

Megan Powers - Human Rights and Anti-trafficking
Activist Vocalist with Four on a Swing and Jazzeando

How did you become involved in the movement against human trafficking?

I first learned of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) as a university student on an overseas internship. I spent a few months pushing papers, but the papers that came across my desk were not the kind one easily forgets. The organization I worked with dealt a lot with transnational illicit trade: guns, drugs, and other illegal goods. Then, one day, there was this photo that came to my desk - a woman, a teenager really, who had gone missing. The photo was overtly sexual, an advertisement found on some back-channel illegal website. She was strikingly beautiful and her pose bespoke confidence, a celebration of sensuality. But her eyes - there was something about her eyes. They were angry, full of pain. Full of fear. I will never forget the look in her eyes. I was struck. At first glance, I had found her enviable
- a beauty no one could deny. But something seemed terribly wrong. I learned from a co-worker that she had been trafficked, forced into prostitution against her will. Despite the best efforts of the organization, they could never quite track her down. She remained a haunting vision, trapped inside the deepest channels of the internet, inside the most cloistered crime syndicates in the world. Occasionally a new photo would surface, a hint, a whisper. But by the time a location was traced, she had been whisked away, forced into the next chapter of her living nightmare.
Her eyes have haunted me ever since. I used to think, “if only we could have saved her…”. Then I learned that trafficking was everywhere. It’s not just one girl, it’s millions. It’s not just trafficking for sexual exploitation, it’s trafficking for labour, domestic servitude, work in massage parlours and nail salons, hotels, construction, and for organs. It’s women and men and children. Every shape and size, every colour and religion. And it is everywhere. How many times in a year do we walk past a victim of human trafficking and not know? In a week? In a day? Yet, when we learn to recognize the signs, how many opportunities do we have to take a stand in a year? In a week? In a day?

How far are poverty and other such economic issues related to human trafficking? Do you think social and cultural issues can be related to human trafficking?

Poverty and economic issues are the reason for human trafficking. No society or culture teaches the commodification of human beings without economic impetus to do so. No human being accedes the valuation of a human life in monetary terms unless they have been psychologically conditioned to do so. In today’s world, survival is intrinsically linked to money - without it, our very existence is threatened. But it is hard for the average person who does not directly participate in TIP to see human trafficking as a symptom of poverty. I know it was much easier for me to think of traffickers as evil people and trafficking as a crime of chance, not as a systematized exploitation of a deeply ingrained societal construct by people who, in many cases, have been tremendously disadvantaged and abused themselves. The latter would mean that I, as a member of society, am partially responsible for TIP, that my relative comfort or economic security has in some way perpetuated human trafficking. And that is a heart wrenching thought.

When I began to understand the truth about human trafficking, the world looked different. It wasn’t just black and white - trafficking and not trafficking - it was a hundred shades of grey: poorly paid workers trapped in terrible conditions, women who had endured such abuse and degradation they felt they had no other option than to sell their bodies.

What is my role in all of this? How much damage has my lifestyle done to those less fortunate than I? The thought can be overwhelming to swim in. But if we flip that on its head, it also means that every one of us has the power to change the status quo, to raise awareness, to vote with our purchases. There are many incredible organizations in Kolkata alone that have decided to tackle human trafficking through economics. They offer sustainable, fair employment to victims of trafficking as well as to those vulnerable to it like the SariBari, Destiny Foundation, the Loyal Workshop, Anudip Foundation, and Freeset, to name a few. By supporting these ventures, and responsible government empowerment schemes for the poor, we can make a difference.

What do you consider the main obstacles to combating trafficking in human beings? What needs to be done?

Awareness. TIP is pervasive, it is intelligent, and it is highly secretive. But it exists in broad daylight, side-by-side with the rest of us as we go about our day. This is terrifying, but it is also empowering. Because of this, every single one of us has power to stand for a world where TIP is no more. TIP is not just found in the redlight areas and sweat shops, it is in the fields, in the home, in the market and on the corner. From the produce we buy to the homes that we live in, cheap goods and cheap labor are not so cheap when you look at the human cost. We all have the responsibility to look beyond ourselves, to question if a situation truly is as it appears. Many people mistakenly believe that for a human to do something against their will, they must physically be chained, but the invisible chains of emotional and psychological abuse, the threat of violence against one’s family, these are just as strong as any physical chains. We can take a stand if we learn to recognize the signs of such abuse, to question, to push beyond our own discomfort. It is much easier to dismiss pain and suffering, to look past things that make us uneasy. But our ignorance allows for the continued suffering of millions. Can we accept that?

We hear that Sweden has eradicated almost all prostitution and trafficking. In the light of Sweden's success what can be done to encourage India to change its laws and make the buyers of sex criminally charged, not the boys and women being abused?

Though I commend the approach taken by the Swedish legislature (in 1999, they ratified a national ban against the purchase of sexual services), I caution against calling the results conclusive or assuming that this is all that needs to be done to end trafficking. I wholeheartedly support the criminalization of the purchase of sex as opposed to the criminalization of those who (in many instances against their will) render the desired services. However, it is imperative that the legislation provide harsh sentences for perpetrators and that law enforcement officials receive training and support to back up such laws.

Human trafficking is a business, one of the most lucrative for organized crime the world over. Humans, as opposed to drugs or weapons, are relatively inexpensive to “purchase”, can be used over and over, and are then easily discarded as miscreants of society, never recognized as the victim they truly are. We are all responsible for that, and though a law criminalizing the purchase of sex is a huge step in the right direction, it does not acknowledge the greater commodification of human beings (labour trafficking, domestic servitude, etc.). We all have a part to play in raising awareness and eradicating trafficking and we cannot simply hope a new law will make it all go away.

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