A powerful weapon in the fight against modern slavery

Slavery has been with us for thousands of years. It's documented in records scratched on 4 000-year old tablets. It led, in one of humanity's darkest episodes, to millions of men, women and children being kidnapped and shipped from Africa in chains across the Atlantic.

But while it would be comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, sadly that is not the case. While it may be outlawed nationally and internationally, it remains a scar on humanity in every continent.   

Modern slavery may not be as visible as in the past, but it's found in the richest and poorest countries, in our major cities and in the countryside. As our societies have developed, slavery has evolved as well. Victims are transported on 747s as well as ox-carts. Slavery is used to produce everything from electronics, steel, food, and the cotton in our clothes. It turns its victims into pliable servants to be used and discarded. 

Violence is at the heart of all slavery. Whether the victims are coerced to work in quarries and factories, forced into marriage, or tricked into working in brothels – the common thread is that they are not free to walk away. But while we know enough to recognise that slavery, in its modern forms, is all around us, it remains poorly understood. This helps slavery remain hidden and hampers the fight to end it.

Without accurate information, we don't know where to focus our efforts or what works best in tackling it. This lack of information also makes it easier, sadly, for governments, business and communities to ignore it.

It is why it is important to shine a light on modern slavery by gathering as much authoritative information as possible. This is what has been drawn together in the first Global Slavery Index published by the Walk Free Foundation which is dedicated to ending modern slavery in this generation.

By collating information, the report enables the most accurate estimate yet of the numbers caught in slavery globally, regionally and nationally. It goes further by ranking 162 countries based on a weighted measure of the prevalence of modern slavery by population, the extent of child marriage and the scale of trafficking in and out the country.

The findings make bleak reading. The report estimates that there are at least 29.8-million people living in slavery. Most of those denied their freedom live in Asia with India, China and Pakistan having the greatest absolute numbers of people enslaved. India alone accounts for almost half the world's total with millions trapped in debt bondage and bonded labour.

But when looked at as a proportion of the population, it is Mauritania which has the worst record.  The West African country has a deeply entrenched system of hereditary slavery with 140 000 to 160 000 slaves out of a population of only 3.8-million. Haiti, a Caribbean nation where child slavery is also widespread, is in second place with Pakistan again one place below.

Even countries that perform best in the index – Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom – cannot be considered to be free of modern slavery. It is estimated, for example, that there are as many as 4 000 modern slaves in the UK – and more could be done to help them and prevent others suffering their fate. For the Index also examines for each country the priority given to rooting out modern slavery, the methods used and how they could be improved. 

So what does this first Index say about the extent of modern slavery in sub-Saharan Africa? The region has no less than 15 of the worst 20 performers with Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia and Gabon all in the top 10 of the Index. Extreme poverty, conflict and traditional practices such as child marriage are all factors in this depressing record. Mauritius, which ranks 143, is the continent's best performer while South Africa which is 115, is praised for its anti-slavery policies.  

However, while it has made significant progress, South Africa is still not free from modern slavery. Children in the country are trafficked from rural to urban areas for the purpose of forced labour and sexual exploitation, and young girls are abducted and subjected to sexual exploitation in the cities, or kept in private homes in domestic servitude.

This is the first year of the Index. As each year passes, we will work to refine and improve it. But it can already shape national and global efforts to root out modern slavery in Africa and across the world. We now know, for example, that just 10 countries are home to 76% of those trapped in modern slavery. These nations must be the focus of global efforts. The Index also shows that some countries such as Brazil can teach the rest of the world a great deal about bringing modern slavery to an end.

This is the aim of the Index. We intend it to be a powerful weapon for all in the fight against modern slavery. Governments must be at the heart of this effort, putting in place effective measures and providing the resources to support and enforce them. But it is all of us as citizens, as consumers and as individuals who can use the information to take part in this battle and press our leaders for action here in Africa and across the world.  

Nick Grono is the chief executive of the Walk Free Foundation.

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