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How Can We Tell Those in Slavery That the U.S. Congress Won't Help?

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The brick kilns of Uttar Pradesh, India, are more than 7,000 miles from Capitol Hill in Washington. But for years, they have been linked by a groundbreaking piece of American legislation.

That law is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed by Congress in 2000. It has established the U.S. as a world leader in the fight to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery, at home and abroad.

The TVPA has helped many people escape brutal abuse. It's a beacon of hope for millions who are still trapped in bondage.

But the TVPA must be reauthorized every few years. And sadly, Congress allowed it to expire at the end of its last session. It's the first time that has happened. Without the key piece of authorizing legislation in place to guide America's global anti-slavery effort, the path to freedom for those in slavery is in jeopardy.

I was thinking about the future of the TVPA as I met slavery survivors in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks ago, just days after the last Congress was gaveled to a close in America. The TVPA had helped these villages move from slavery to freedom.

They had been enslaved because they borrowed money from an unscrupulous brick kiln owner. They were forced to work for him only, for as long as he wished, and they were charged staggering amounts of interest to ensure they could never pay off the debt. Whole families -- including children -- were forced to work. They were threatened with violence if they questioned the situation.

Debt-bondage like this is illegal. It's slavery. But it happens throughout the world. And the stakes are quite literally life and death. One man told me that the brick kiln manager killed his 8-year-old son after a petty dispute about access to clean drinking water at the worksite.

The U.S. government provided funding to educate these workers about their rights and organize as a group. They made a decision together that would have been impossible for any of them to make alone: they all decided to escape. The survivors have been provided with a legal advocate and I was told that the brick kiln manager has been charged with murder.

This has been happening in village after village in India. Education leads to freedom. We're not talking about slapping up a few billboards. It's real community organizing (President Obama knows what that is). It requires spending time with extraordinarily vulnerable people to establish trust, identify leaders and build their self-confidence. It's remarkable what happens when people marshal their innate power and join forces with their neighbors.

This type of initiative is innovative in the remote corners of Uttar Pradesh. But it isn't expensive. And under the TVPA, the U.S. State Department has funded similar projects around the world.

What happens after people break free is a big part of the story. When people begin to stand up for their rights, their villages begin to benefit in many, many ways: better schooling, better health care, better nutrition, a better local economy. Residents in freed villages help slaves neighboring communities, spreading freedom.

The people of the United States have supported this investment in freedom through the TVPA.

Congress must reauthorize the act to preserve America's role as key participant in the growing global movement to abolish slavery in the 21st century. It speaks well of our nation that the thing we value most -- freedom -- is something we help others achieve. It's unthinkable that we would stop -- that we would tell the next village in slavery that America can't help.

Karen Stauss is the Director of Programs for the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves, overseeing the group's frontline projects overseas and policy advocacy in Washington.