Possibly one of the stupidest things I ever did while travelling was plunge head-first into Amsterdam’s red-light district late at night with little sense of where I was going. Dragging my poor friend along with me, I had only one goal in mind: to catch a glimpse of the infamous red windows.
So there we were, two small Asian girls wandering around dimly lit canal ways that were more empty than I had expected (we had unknowingly bypassed the main streets). It didn’t take long to find the neon-light windows; large, glaring red eyes behind which hidden sex workers plied their trade. I stared at them for a good minute, intrigued that a neighbourhood premised on the idea of a glitzy smorgasbord of prostitution had become such a legendary tourist attraction.
Getting out was nerve-wracking. That momentary panic I felt after realising I had no idea which lane led back to the city centre was compounded when a shady-looking group of men on the opposite side of the road began to notice us. Several quickened steps and silent prayers later, familiar bright lights and crowded vlaamse frites stalls appeared miraculously before our eyes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Disaster had been averted.
Slavery Is Alive and Well
Soon after, I attended a film screening hosted by Amnesty International where my conscience was shaken by a phenomenon called ‘human trafficking’. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines it as
… the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
In short, human trafficking is the buying and selling of human beings for cold profit. It’s the modern-day slave trade. I realised retrospectively that behind those red windows, there was a good chance that girls were being sold against their will under the veneer of a ‘tolerant’ and legalised sex industry. And I shuddered.
You may already know that there are an estimated 29 million slaves in the world today. They waste away in mines and garment factories, brothels and homes, farms and brick kilns. 2 million of those are children ‘working’ (held captive and repeatedly raped) in the commercial sex industry. There are slaves everywhere – yes, even in Australia.
Despite learning as much as possible about this degrading trade in human beings, there came a point when the statistics just weren’t getting through to me. Short bursts of sadness were followed by months of easy indifference, over and over again. The greatest distance in the world is truly between a person’s mind and their heart.
In 2012, fed up with my knee-jerk good intentions, I decided to stay for ten weeks in Nepal in the faint hope of learning about the issue close up. I worked six days a week at a local human rights organisation and came across awful stories of trafficked girls and sexual abuse.
But even that wasn’t where reality hit. Rather, it was on one of my walks around the organised chaos of Kathmandu that a very different set of eyes finally drove the message home.
The Look That Finally Cut Through
I’d left the gaudy tourist area of Thamel far behind and ventured into smaller residential roads, batting away sly tour guides and pesky hash sellers. Piles of burning rubbish and rusted mini stupas littered the way. Most of the buildings were three to four storeys high and extremely run-down. Every now and then, I would look up to take photos of interesting architectural patterns that caught my eye.
Once, my gaze swung upwards to an insane jumble of electrical wires amassed on the side of a dingy, yellowy, crumbling building. And I saw something I have not forgotten until this day.
Through my camera lens, I caught a pair of dark brown eyes looking down at me from the second floor. It was a young girl wearing a pink traditional kuta, sitting hunched over on a grimy plastic crate. She watched me from behind a crude ‘window’ of barbed wire and mesh held in place by pieces of wood and metal bars. My camera dropped slowly to my side, and we stared at each other for a good ten to twenty seconds. It felt like a lifetime.
Something about the intensity of her deadened eyes made me uncomfortable, yet unable to look away. She showed none of the joy or energy I had seen in the kids I met on the street – no smile, no spark, no life. Nothing. As we looked at each other, it felt like we were both sizing up the gross inequity that spanned the silent space between us. She, languishing in a dark room behind a window you’d expect to find in a dirty low-grade prison. Me, jeans-clad and free to walk wherever I pleased. But for the great lottery that is life, she could easily have been me, and I her. An immense sadness welled up inside of me, and I had to break eye contact first.
I had no way of confirming if she was one of the thousands of girls held in domestic and sexual servitude in the Kathmandu Valley. (My gut feeling – and the crass parlour signs lining the street I was walking down – did not reassure me of a happier conclusion.) But it didn’t matter. The utter void in her eyes was enough to haunt me for a very long time. She became the face I could put to all the case studies I had come across at work. The girls sold to well-off families, beaten and abused, given no chance of an education. The girls sold to pimps, on-sold to multiple clients, forced to have their hymens painfully re-sewn and re-sold as ‘virgins’ for a higher price. The girls who had chilli powder forced into their vaginas, were infected with HIV, then ultimately discarded and forgotten.
It’s funny how one look can change you, seep into your thoughts and influence your choices for the next few years of your life. I can only hope something as horrendous as the large-scale existence of modern-day slavery becomes an ever-present weight on our collective conscience until it is stamped out.
Seeing is Believing
There is a problem, however. It’s a problem that was put bluntly several hundred years ago by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, in a fictional scenario laced with a sad truth about human empathy:
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe would react on receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people. He would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight, but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.”
We must find a way to see them. To look into the eyes of someone who has known the pain of being treated as nothing more than a commodity, a piece of meat, a disposable.
Until we do, we will sleep soundly tonight and all our nights, oblivious to the ceaseless torture, rape, intimidation and humiliation of millions of our fellow human beings. People who could just have easily been our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters. People who could have been me. People who could have been you.
Want to see them? Visit Destiny Rescue to find out how you can help end modern-day slavery.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Kathmandu, Nepal