Disturbing study on sexual slavery exposes barbarity at heart of globalisation


BOOK OF THE DAY: Padraig Carmodyreviews Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern SlaveryBy Siddharth Kara Columbia University Press; 298pp, £14.95

THIS BOOK is a disturbing and illuminating study of one of the underbellies of economic globalisation: the global sex trafficking industry.

The author is a former investment banker who has undertaken years of research into the human and economic dynamics of this multinational and highly profitable business.

Kara defines slaves as people held against their will and forced to work without compensation. While slavery is illegal worldwide, he estimates there are almost 30 million slaves in the world. In some cases they harvest cocoa beans for chocolate; in others they are forced into sexual slavery. He details the ways in which women and children are duped, abducted, beaten and tortured to make superprofits for their exploiters and to fulfil the lurid desires of their "clients". This exceptional profitability stems from the fact that, unlike a drug, for example, a human can be sexually exploited repeatedly.

As global inequality and regional poverty have deepened, children in Asia in particular are often sold to traffickers who trade them as if they are commodities. Because parents sometimes cannot afford to pay marriage dowries, they sell their female children. HIV levels in India have also prompted demand for children, who are more likely to be disease-free. Sometimes they are given away to repay debts but, because of interest payments and deductions for food and lodging, the victims are trapped in perpetual debt bondage. In some cases slaves are afraid to run away for fear of what will happen to their parents.

In some western countries, according to the author, sexual slavery may be preferable to the alternative, given the acute poverty in their home countries.

The erosion of borders, as in the EU, and improvements in the technologies of travel have facilitated global sex trafficking. Poor salaries for law enforcement and corruption in parts of the developing world mean a blind eye is often turned to the practice.After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Europe has the highest levels of sex slavery in the world. When all of the savings in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, were transferred to the Russian central bank, hundreds of thousands of savers were ruined, providing more potential victims for the trade. In Italy, street prostitution is legal and an average wage for only 2.2 hours of work is required to purchase sex from a slave. In 1990 foreign women accounted for 5 per cent of murder victims in Italy. By 2004 the figure was 25 per cent.

Part of the reason global sexual slavery has not received the attention it deserves is that it is often described as "trafficking", placing emphasis on stopping movement across borders rather than sexual exploitation. The author calls for a new global abolitionist movement to invert the risk-and-reward structure of the industry.

Through stricter penalties, dedicated courts and other initiatives, Kara argues that profits can be reduced and risks raised. However, he also says the underlying inequalities of globalisation which promote the trade must be addressed.

This is a well-written, accessible book, though difficult to read in places given the horrors it recounts. It achieves its goal of making readers conscious of the barbarity of this modern slave trade and the need to eradicate it.

Pádraig Carmody is a lecturer in human geography at Trinity College Dublin and editor of the journal Irish Geography. His most recent book is Neoliberalism, Civil Society and Security in Africa