Worth the struggle: How President Obama can curtail human trafficking

Waing (name changed) was sold into marriage at the age of 17. Now she helps educate young people about the dangers of human trafficking. Photo by: World Vision

Waing (the name has been changed to protect her identity) did not understand where her strength came from. Her exhausted legs still tried to keep moving and followed the narrow path between the mountains. The chilling wind and hunger could not stop her as she was determined to go home.

“I kept telling myself that I [must] go home and I must see my father’s face before I die.”

It was her second attempt to escape after five years of what she describes as “hell.” Tricked by promises of a high-paying factory job, Waing was kidnapped from her home in Myanmar, smuggled into a neighboring country, and sold into marriage when she was 17.

“My husband was violent. He beat me a lot,” Waing said. “There was no one to help me and no one understood me even when I cried out for help. I was really helpless and hopeless. I just let them do whatever they wanted as there was nothing else I could do.”

Sadly, stories like Waing’s are the new face of slavery.

One hundred and fifty years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation – a document so important it hangs in the Oval Office – slavery is still alive and well in what is now known as human trafficking. The Emancipation Proclamation helped fulfill the promise of the U.S. Constitution – that all people are created equal, declaring “all persons held as slaves would thenceforth be forever free.” It’s a promise more than 20 million people around the world hope to hold, but for now, they’re trapped in a statistic few imagined they’d ever be part of – modern-day slaves.

Today, there are more slaves in the world than any other time in human history. What gave the words in the Emancipation Proclamation true power was the promise that the U.S. government would “recognize and maintain the freedom of [freed] persons.” Right now, it is hard to make the argument that the United States is still working to maintain the freedom of all people.

On the same historic anniversary of Lincoln taking pen to paper, the centerpiece of all U.S. anti-trafficking laws (the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act) and our biggest weapon in the fight against modern-day slavery died in Congress, blocked by a game of politics.

As a result, the U.S. no longer has an authorized anti-human trafficking law. That threatens programs that protect vulnerable men, women and children, provide survivors with services, and prosecute human traffickers. In short, it has weakened U.S. leadership in the fight against modern-day slavery and left millions of people vulnerable to exploitation. It’s a failure that is planted firmly at the feet of partisan politics.

There have been some small successes thanks to President Barack Obama and others who haven’t given up the fight. With Executive Order 13627 last year, the government strengthened protections to make sure companies who get federal contracts don’t participate in human trafficking. We applaud this effort and look forward to seeing how this executive order can work to further fight slavery that may exist in the government supply chain. But there is still work to be done.

President Obama is probably thinking of all the hurdles ahead for this year. There’s a lot to do – balancing a budget, fostering the still-recovering economy, and finding some way to get Congress to work together on even the most basic functions of government. It’s going to be hard. It could be tempting to place the fight against modern-day slavery on the back burner.

It’s a daunting feeling that many of us who are leading the fight to get this bill passed feel. However, we draw on the strength of survivors like Waing. If Waing can find it within herself to escape a life of captivity and reclaim the promise of her young life, then all of us can find the strength to work together to make America a global leader in combatting human trafficking once more.

Waing didn’t make it back in time to see her father alive. He died before she could return home. Even worse, she had to leave her children behind with her abusive husband. But today she holds onto one hope – that she can prevent someone else from going through what she did.

“I don’t want anyone to get into that living hell that I had to live in. I tell my story to others so that they can be aware of human trafficking,” Waing said.

My hope this year is that President Obama and the new Congress can also draw on Waing’s strength. In September 2012, the president laid out a commitment to seeing the renewal of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and said, “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it.”

We thank him for this leadership and call on both parties and both chambers of Congress to renew the U.S. fight against modern-day slavery both around the world and here at home.

Just like Waing’s journey, the road will likely be tough, the pace grueling, but with one foot in front of the other President Obama can make a difference for the millions around the world still yearning for freedom.

This is part of a series of guest opinions by NGO leaders on ways to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective.

About the author

  • Edgar Sandoval

    Jesse Eaves is the senior policy advisor for child protection at World Vision in Washington, D.C. He coordinates the advocacy portfolio for World Vision's many offices around the globe for issues of child protection that include child soldiers, exploitative child labor, child trafficking, and child sexual exploitation. Through his advocacy efforts, Eaves works to educate and empower Americans to take a stand for child protection and attempts to ensure that U.S. policymakers know how they can help to protect vulnerable children around the world.