There are millions of sex slaves in the World - how safe is your daughter? Your sister? Your girlfriend?
Emma Thompson, the Academy Award winning actress and activist, spent last week in New York City as the co-creator of a brilliant art exhibition called "Journey." The exhibition shed light on the darkest corners of human behavior by bringing to life the terrifying, violent journey of the millions of girls who have been trafficked into sexual slavery.
Thompson's project also exposed another important aspect of our human weakness: Apathy. Sexual slavery continues to exist because otherwise decent people can't be bothered to care. As an activist working to enlighten the average citizen about the horrors of human trafficking, I witness this attitude often. The average person will give me kudos for my charity work, even get a little teary eyed as I discuss it, until they can find a polite yet hasty exit, tossing an apologetic, "Uhm.. good luck with that," over their shoulder as they bolt. I was ultimately excited by Thompson's artistic approach, and that she found a creative way to raise awareness of such a terrible issue: through art.
Slavery is an ugly subject, and I certainly understand why good people don't want to talk about it. We don't want to believe that human beings can sell each other like commodities. We don't want to know that millions of little girls and young women are enslaved in situations where they are raped over forty times a day. Perhaps that's why we call it human trafficking; it's a phrase that somehow makes torture, rape and slavery more acceptable to our ears.
More often than not, I encounter the attitude that sexual slavery is something that happens "over there" - as if it is less monstrous if it occurs in the third world. For Americans, there is some kind of cold comfort in clinging to the belief that it doesn't happen here and therefore doesn't affect us. This is a dangerous myth which needs to be dispelled immediately. Sexual enslavement and torture is alive and thriving in the USA, from Los Angeles to New York City, and everywhere in between. Girls are easier to ship than drugs and weapons, and more profitable. The sex slave industry increases every year, everywhere. And it can happen to any of us. I know, because it almost happened to me.
I was 21 years old and trekking through the Continent on a Eurail Pass with my childhood best friend. This blissful adventure came to a terrifying halt at an outdoor café in Lisbon one evening when our table was suddenly surrounded by fourteen agitated and threatening men. We would discover later that our attackers were operatives of human trafficking cartels, and that we had been "sold" by the café owner. There is a horrifyingly common practice in areas of the world that attract tourists, from Aruba to Portugal, that entails tipsters earning cash bonuses to spot good candidates for the slave trade - usually young women traveling alone or in pairs. In our case, coloring was a factor: premiums are paid for certain skin tones and eye colors, depending on the customer.
It can happen to anyone.
We were fortunate in that the incident was witnessed and we were rescued before anything truly terrible happened to us. In another few minutes we would have been on slave ships at the port, human cargo thrown into shipping containers on our way to a fate so nightmarish that I cannot even begin to imagine it. Emma Thompson's "Journey" used these same shipping containers as the basis of the exhibit, to illustrate how girls are dumped into windowless metal cages and shipped to brothels around the world.
I believe that my personal brush with human trafficking was not an accident. I am certain that it was God's wake-up call to me. I needed to be made aware in an ultimately visceral way that this horror exists on our planet today, and is a greater threat around the world than it has ever been before. I needed to know how it felt to be trapped, terrified and completely helpless. I needed to experience the wrenching realization that my humanity didn't matter to the desensitized men who saw me only as a commodity, no different from any inanimate object that could be sold for profit, or equally discarded as garbage. I needed to know how it felt to have the hands of vicious predators on me, with no means of escaping them.
Currently, over twenty-seven million women and children are enslaved worldwide in conditions that are nearly unimaginable to most of us. Let me repeat that number, because it is really too large to fathom in a single instance: TWENTY-SEVEN MILLION. Slavery is illegal virtually everywhere - and yet it is more common and prevalent than at any period in history.
But we can do something about it. We can end human trafficking and sexual slavery. The first step is simply to care.
Because I was rescued from this fate by the grace of God, I believe that it is my obligation to work as hard as I can to help others who have been victimized or who are at risk. Like Emma Thompson, I hope to make a difference through my art. To represent my commitment to this belief, I have pledged to donate royalties from my latest book, The Source of Miracles, to charities that support women and children who are recovering from the horrors of human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Specifically, I have teamed with Sarah Symons and her worthy organizations, The Emancipation Network and Made By Survivors to create programs that create and sustain employment for women who have been rescued from the nightmare of human trafficking, allowing them to be both safe and self-supporting.
I chose to work with Made by Survivors specifically because of their hands on, in the field approach, but also because they have created a program which allows average citizens to care in a painless way. Made by Survivors provides a marketplace for products created by young women who have been rescued or are at risk; they are fighting slavery with empowerment. You can make a difference - even save lives- by simply shopping online. Buying beautiful handmade products, a necklace or a purse or holiday cards, makes you an activist in the global battle to end slavery. It is so simple, yet ultimately powerful. It raises awareness at the same time that it raises funds.
Emma Thompson's "Journey" has run its course, but it is up to us to keep the powerful lessons in our consciousness. The exhibition has gone, but the problem grows each day. You can help. To view the jewelry and support survivors and girls who are risk, visit www.madebysurvivors.com or my own website, www.kathleenmcgowan.com.
Together, we can make this holiday season truly blessed as we work toward a real miracle: ending slavery while bringing justice and peace to those who are in need.
Kathleen McGowan is a New York Times bestselling author. Proceeds from her new book, The Source of Miracles: Seven Steps to Transforming your Life Through the Lord's Prayer, will be donated to the initiatives of The Emancipation Network and Made by Survivors.