Most of us have heard the numbers.
Thirty-five million people are trapped in modern-day slavery. Over 25 percent of those victims are children. Twenty-two percent are enslaved for the sex trade; the other 78 percent are forced to labor in poor conditions without pay. In the United States, there are more than 60,000 in slavery. In Oklahoma, 22 separate cases of trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in the first three months of 2016.
It’s easy to breeze past numbers on spreadsheets, but numbers aren’t the victims. People are.
Oklahoma resident DeAnna Sanders was distraught when she first discovered detailed accounts of girls who’d been in forced prostitution.
“When I read those stories about seven years ago, I couldn’t get them out of my head,” Sanders said. “I couldn’t walk away from them. Slavery has always been one of those issues throughout history that’s been a social injustice and made me angry. But to realize that is hasn’t gone away—that it’s just taken a different form—it stirred something within me reading that. I wanted to be a part of the solution.”
Sanders now serves as the country director for Indonesia at She Is Safe, a Georgia-based ministry that works globally to fight human trafficking. She visits the country twice each year to listen to the stories of trafficking survivors.
“There’s one girl, and she thinks she’s 13—she doesn’t know,” Sanders said. “She came into the [She Is Safe] program when she was 12. Her uncle sold her when she was very young, so she was sold repeatedly.”
Later, the girl was forced to lure her friends into the business as well.
“Before she’s probably 10 or 11-years-old, she was trafficking girls herself,” Sanders said. “Then she actually saw one of the girls being raped multiple times and left for dead. That was her turning point.”
The police got involved, and the girl was taken to one of the organization’s safe houses in Bali.
“She was freed from a life where she had only known abuse,” Sanders said. “She came very broken. She would hit her head against the wall and just scream in the night because of the dreams she had.”
Now, after a year of therapy and rehabilitation, the girl has learned to read, and she is beginning to understand how to care for herself.
“She’s just beautiful,” Sanders said. “I always ask the girls what they want to be, and she wants to be a singer. That’s a lofty goal for a young girl, but she just wants something better than what she had. And she’ll find it. She doesn’t beat her head against the wall anymore, but she still has a long way to go.”
The story, unfortunately, is not unique. Many trafficking victims endure unthinkable brutalities each day. Like Sanders, University of Oklahoma student activist Lucy Mahaffey was devastated when she first learned about the existence of modern slavery at 12 years old.
“I cried for a solid hour.” Mahaffey said. “I kept thinking if anything like this happened to my twin sister, I wouldn’t stop. I just literally wouldn’t sleep until she was out of there.”
Mahaffey said she realized she was crying because she felt helpless, but she soon realized that she could be part of the solution.
Since that day, she has worked to raise awareness, creating curriculum, organizing events and starting an anti-trafficking organization on her university campus. She constantly encourages others to get involved in the movement, dismissing the misconception that there are only a handful of ways to help the cause.
“Every single person can use the talents and focus that they already have to impact this,” Mahaffey said. “If you’re studying statistics, they need statisticians to help quantify this issue. If you’re a lawyer, they need legal services. If you’re a doctor, they need medical services. If you like baking, then bake! Fundraise.”
Her engagement in the fight has allowed her to understand the horrors of the issue on a far more personal level. She’s built close relationships with a few survivors. She spoke of one in particular who has, in many ways, managed to move on from life of abuse.
“She has family. She has a granddaughter. She has a job. She’s graduated college. She’s done all these fantastic things, but the trauma is still there,” Mahaffey said. “When we’ve had discussions about her experiences, she hasn’t told me ‘Oh, and then he raped me,’ but she’s able to tell details about the day like exactly what the guy was wearing or the car or different aspects of the room or the people she saw,”
Each day, the mental trauma, financial instability and difficulties with trust plague the woman and influence her relationships.
“The memories of the physical abuse don’t just leave,” Mahaffey said. “Very, very extreme emotions, whether they are positive or negative, stay with us. They get impressed on our mind, and almost no matter what, those details are not going to leave her.”
The near impossibility of complete recovery is a painful reality for many survivors, according to University of Oklahoma professor, Roksana Alavi, Ph.D.
“[Being trafficked] is perhaps like being handed a life sentence when you have not even committed a crime. Even if the physical chains are gone, the mental ones take far longer to detach,” Alavi said.
Even the activists who are fighting against modern slavery must occasionally combat feelings of hopelessness and darkness that surround such acts of injustice.
“This is a very horrific issue,” Mahaffey said. “These are real people. These are real horror stories, and the more and more you know about it, the freakier it is. But sometimes, the more you understand it, the less overwhelming it seems because you can see how certain things are connected, so it’s this weird duality.”
Jon Andrews, Regional Director of Church Partnerships at Love Justice International, said these emotional challenges pale in comparison with the sense of accomplishment that come with changing the life of even one girl.
During his recent trip to Nepal, Andrews spent an evening sharing warm orange Fanta with one young woman who the Love Justice International border staff had intercepted earlier that morning. While he listened to her story, the weight of the situation became apparent to him.
“All of a sudden, it just hit me: if our staff hadn’t been there in the morning and intercepted her, her night would have been a lot different than it was,” Andrews said. It was so humbling to think maybe some little crazy part of what I did had a part in life-altering change. Thirty-five million people in slavery—that’s a big number. But if you can put a face to it, and all you do is save that one, then it’s worth it.”
The efforts of the new generation are beginning to transform the fight against human trafficking, combating the apathy of older ones, he said.
“People have heard it again and again” Andrews said. “They start becoming numb to it and desensitized. But I’m seeing young people rise up and make [modern slavery] one of their causes. They’re wanting to get involved, they’re wanting to get their hands dirty. They would love to be part of the generation that would end this.”
Modern slavery becomes difficult to ignore when considering the lives attached to the statistics.
“I think once you know, you have a responsibility to do something,” Sanders said. “You don’t necessarily have to make it a career, but you do have to do something to make it better.”
It’s more than the numbers. It’s personal. Because if just one of those numbers was your twin sister, daughter, your wife, your little brother or grandchild, there wouldn’t be enough figures or percentages in the world to explain the problem away. No point on a graph could really represent the pain or desperation.
So yes, it’s personal.
But we aren’t helpless.
“There’s so many ways to do something,” Sanders said. “But don’t just ignore it.”