Despite stigma of sex crimes, slavery survivors speak out to demand change

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 March 2018 11:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Slavery victims are sharing their stories to demand strong action and tough laws, seek justice and raise awareness of the ever-evolving crime

When the judge rose to his feet and sentenced to jail the couple who had sex trafficked Ruby, she did not cry, curse or shout.

The Filipina teenager walked over to the husband and wife who had forced her to perform sex acts in front of a webcam, deprived her of regular meals and threatened her repeatedly over several weeks, and sat with them at the back of the courtroom.

Facing the traffickers who had lured her away from her family, tricked into her modern slavery and subjected her and several other young girls to unimaginable abuse, Ruby took out her bible, opened it, and began reading a passage of tolerance.

She prayed for the couple - and for their children - before they were taken away to start their 15-year prison sentences.

Ruby believed their family deserved a second chance just as her rescue from sex slavery had enabled her to start life anew.

"I looked into their eyes and saw how eager they were to receive forgiveness – the husband even asked if I might come and visit them in prison," said 21-year-old Ruby, who did not give her real name as she is involved in ongoing court proceedings.

"I didn't see them as enemies or as perpetrators anymore ... just as a part of my past," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a church in Tagaytay city in the Philippines, as she patiently recalled the sentencing of her abusers last year.

The act of compassion came at the end of a year-long wait to testify against her abusers about the pain she endured for two months as a victim of cybersex trafficking, a rising crime where people are abused over livestreams and sold for sex online.

SURVIVORS TAKE THE STAGE

From Britain and India to the Philippines, slavery survivors are speaking out - to demand action and tough laws, seek justice and raise awareness of the lucrative trade which spans from car washes and cybersex dens to garment factories and refugee camps.

More than 40 million people were estimated to be enslaved worldwide last year, in forced labour, sex work and forced marriages, in a crime thought to generate $150 billion annually.

At the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference last year, a British survivor of sex trafficking took to the stage and made an impassioned plea for stronger action to be taken against those responsible for enslaving people across the globe.

Sarah was 12 and in foster care when she was trafficked by a gang in England who wooed her with cigarettes then drugs, before selling her body daily. She chose to share her story due to the "system failures" that saw her held in slavery for seven years.

Just last month in India, dozens of female slavery victims united in the capital to urge lawmakers to prioritise passing a tough new anti-trafficking law that had just been approved by cabinet and which aims to help survivors rebuild their lives.

Coming from all across the country, many of the women were overawed by the occasion but humbled to have their voices heard.

Their message was clear: support us to achieve justice, give us money to start afresh, and help us to educate our children.

SPEAKING OUT FOR SUPPORT

In Ruby's case, the college student said she was initially afraid to testify and to relive the horrors she had endured.

"But I had the desire to send them (the couple) to jail, I fought for justice, for me and the other girls. So I let my anger speak for me, for us, and I was not afraid," she said.

Ruby's desire to see the couple put away for life softened when she learned they had children, and witnessed their remorse.

But she felt inspired to testify on behalf of the half a dozen or so other girls enslaved with her in the cybersex den because they had been exploited and abused for longer, and were led to believe they would be jailed if they managed to escape.

"I felt sorry for the other girls as they were calloused, they didn't feel any shame and didn't value themselves anymore," Ruby said. "They were in a place where they really had no hope."

For many survivors, freedom is not the end of the road but just the beginning as they suffer stigma, discrimination and trauma, and struggle to get counselling, healthcare and housing.

Luckily for Ruby, she has received help from civil society groups such as the International Justice Mission, and is now studying English with thoughts of becoming a lawyer one day.

"Maybe I'll be a lawyer ... to support those who have gone through what I did," Ruby said, drying her tears with a tissue.

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