Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery

Siddharth Kara

320 pages, Columbia University Press, 2009

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Sex Trafficking, Siddharth Kara’s meticulously documented account of the economics of the modern trade in women’s and children’s bodies, is a huge contribution to the human rights movement. Although Kara names economic globalization and the ensuing mass impoverishment and migration as the chief contributors to the past two decades’ marked increase in sex trafficking, he also rightly places blame squarely on individual actors responsible for modern-day slavery: the slave traders themselves and complicit law enforcement.

Kara builds on a solid foundation of documentation and analysis by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch’s 1998 report on trafficking of Burmese women and girls in Thailand, “A Modern Form of Slavery,” which for 10 years has remained the industry gold standard in the thoroughness of its analysis and recommendations. Kara includes five case studies—India and Nepal, Italy and Western Europe, Moldova and the Former Soviet Union, Albania and the Balkans, and Thailand and the Mekong Subregion—and in each one he tells a story of government complicity in trafficking and the ubiquitous police violence against women and children in the commercial sex industry. He also comprehensively analyzes the economic factors that draw desperate women, minorities, and children to migrate to richer countries.

Kara departs from traditional human rights reporting, however, by also analyzing the economics of the profits to be had from modern-day slave trading in the commercial sex industry. A former investment banker, Kara provides a brisk and businesslike depiction of a limitless supply of victims, ever accelerating demand, and near-total impunity for perpetrators.

In India, for example, Kara observes that the only financial penalty for sex slavery is a $44 fine for owning a brothel. And “even if all the owners of brothels in which sex slaves were exploited were convicted each and every year, sex trafficking would still be a high-profit, minimal-risk venture because the owner of one sex slave in a brothel can generate cash profits per year in excess of $12,900.”

Prison sentences, on the other hand, can jolt traffickers, pimps, and brothel owners into reconsidering their assessment of profit and risk, and deter them from using children or coerced adults in the labor pool. Indeed, in the course of investigating child sex trafficking in South and Southeast Asia, securing relief for victims, and working with local prosecutors to bring perpetrators to justice, we at the International Justice Mission have found that even a relatively small number of convictions can contribute to perpetrators’ finding a different way to make a living.

Still, jail terms for traffickers are rare. As Kara explains, corrupt law enforcement officials comply in virtually every aspect of sex trafficking, from acquisition to movement to exploitation. Victims frequently testify that police raped and arrested them, shook down brothel owners for bail money, or returned them to slave owners when they tried to run away.

Given the extent of police violence against women and men in the commercial sex industry, it is little wonder that human rights activists seeking protection for them are enthusiastic about sex worker organizations that effectively limit police access to portions of their brothel neighborhoods altogether. The success of such associations in India and Thailand in protecting their members from police violence and in encouraging condom use has persuaded some human rights leaders that they are a viable alternative to law enforcement.

Kara and I beg to differ, however. Banning police from red-light districts may protect sex workers from official abuse, but it limits the prospect of rescuing children and slaves from exploitation by perpetrators other than corrupt police—namely the traffickers, pimps, and mamasans (madams) who are making a killing off them. We have found that brothel owners do not hand over their top moneymakers if you simply ask them nicely to do so. Banning police also denies non-trafficked sex workers protection from abusive customers, pimps, and managers, and it eliminates the possibility of perpetrator accountability.

What are we to do, then? Kara believes that “the most effective way to reduce aggregate demand is to attack the industry’s immense profitability by inverting its risk-reward economics, that is, by making the risk of operating a sex slave operation far more costly.” He recommends attacking profitability at slavery’s most vulnerable point: the place of consumption. And he off ers seven tactics for increasing investigations and reducing corruption in police departments and judiciaries.

Chief among these tactics is circumventing corrupt police with a new force consisting of international police and local law enforcement, pursuant to a new antislavery convention. This emphasis on law enforcement is the right approach, but the mechanism is wrong. Donor nations are about as likely to create and fund a slavery intervention force as slavery-plagued governments are to submit to it. After 30 years in the human rights movement, I find it unlikely that the international community will create a force to confront trafficking in a Bombay brothel when it has failed to protect Darfurians from genocide in Sudan.

Moreover, Kara has given up on the possibility of national governments and local police forces too soon. It is a sovereign government’s duty and obligation to provide the protection of law to all—including children and slaves in the sex industry. The combination of international pressure, robust social demand, and the training and leadership of police can make significant inroads against sex trafficking. We’ve seen this in our target areas.

Even without fundamental reform, for instance, Cambodia’s government has made extraordinary gains in eradicating the sexual exploitation of young children by creating an anti-trafficking police task force and briskly prosecuting and sentencing to jail those arrested on anti-trafficking charges. The government’s record is not perfect, and there is still a staggering amount of child sexual exploitation in Cambodia. In fact, exploitation is growing in areas of the country that are newly open to transnational economic activity, just as Kara’s analysis would predict. But the clear progress seen in Phnom Penh over the past five years suggests that we should not reject the approach of making local public justice systems work for the poor and vulnerable before it truly has been tried.

Although Kara underestimates the contribution of national governments and local police in his abolition framework, he has produced an impressive, scholarly book that will prove an asset for the global anti-trafficking movement in the next decade of its work protecting vulnerable children, women, and men. He proposes solutions without glibness and deeply explores the roots and reality of the problem without hopelessness. In my mind, Kara’s is the best book yet on the enduring problem of modern-day slavery.


Holly Burkhalter is vice president of government relations at the International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression. She previously served as the U.S. policy director of Physicians for Human Rights and as advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

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