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Right now chances are you are wearing or touching something that has been produced by slave labor. 

Although mostly hidden, slavery still exists, and it exists all over the world in many forms, from sex slavery to forced manual labor. Today there are an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide of all ages and genders, according to the non-profit organization, Free the Slaves. Women and children are disproportionately at risk.

At a recent George Washington University forum, hosted by the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) and CNN International’s Freedom Project, panelists discussed the characteristics, risk factors, and necessary action to combat slavery today.

According to Kevin Bales, the author of Disposable People, modern day slavery is vastly different from slavery in the past.  In America’s not-so-distant past, slaves were expensive because they had to be transported from Africa. Slavery was justified, or as Bales says, “explained” and “excused” by race and ethnicity.  In previous centuries a unifying characteristic among slaves was the color of their skin.  Once acquired from Africa, slaves would become the legal property of a family for generations. 

Slavery today is based not on race or ethnicity, but rather poverty and vulnerability. Nor is it legal. The practice can be divided into three categories: chattel slavery (described as being born into slavery), debt bondage (a person will pledge himself in exchange for financial loans), and contract slavery (a contract may be used to entice a potential worker and feign legality; once a worker signs the “contract,” he or she discovers that he or she is now enslaved). 

Bales says the reasons for this shift in the nature of slavery are the dramatic increase in the world’s population and the inability of resources to keep up with population growth, resulting in the severe impoverishment of many.  Because there are now so many people who are financially vulnerable, their market value is low.  Once a slave laborer or sex slave is no longer capable of performing the duties desired by the slave holder, the slave holder can simply get rid of the commodity and buy a new one at a low price.

Panelists addressed some of these risk factors for human trafficking.  Rani Hong, a survivor of labor trafficking, explained that the impoverished are tricked into believing that their children are being offered an opportunity to lead a better life, maybe to go to school or to work and send money home to their families.

“My family was poor, and when somebody, a trusted friend, an authority in the village came and said ‘Can I help you? Can I help one of the children?’ my mother, out of her best heart, said ‘Yes, she can go down the street with you because you promised education, a good life,’” said Hong.

“What we found out later is this woman, in southern India, is recruiting children off the street to put them into slavery,” she said.

The reality is far different from the false promises of hope. Children and women are often tortured and raped while they are held captive. 

Academy award winning actress and UN goodwill ambassador for human trafficking Mira Sorvino and US State Dept. ambassador-at-large Luis CdeBaca called on world governments to bring an end to the practice in their countries.

“Awareness is up, structures are there, but governments have to step up and actually solve this problem,” said CdeBaca. 

The panel and audience agreed that progress has been made since the 1990s and awareness has increased dramatically. 

“Back in 2000, when I would tell my story to somebody, people would say ‘What is trafficking? What do you mean human trafficking?’ They didn’t understand what it was.  Now, today, 2011, I see progress…we have a long ways to go, but we are making a movement in this,” said Hong.

 According to Bales, “the key point is this: 27 million people in the world in slavery…double the amount of people that came through Africa in the slave trade.  That 27 million is actually the smallest percentage of the global population to have ever been in slavery.

"In many ways slavery is on the brink of its own destruction," said Bales. "It's absolutely doable."

Part of the transparency and exposure required in the effort to end human trafficking is found in the Trafficking in Persons World report released last week by the US State Dept.  The report includes assessments on governments’ efforts to combat trafficking around the world.     

The Pulitzer Center has supported coverage of human trafficking issues in Nepal.  To explore this issue, visit the Gateway Women.Children.Crisis, and the project page Nepal: Rebuiling Lives after Sex Trafficking.