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Strong commitments needed to fight modern-day slavery

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Picture: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters – A survivor of modern-day slavery who wished to remain anonymous poses for a picture in New Delhi, India. The UN and International Labour Organisation aim to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery which include the trafficking of persons, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage.

By Gwinyai Taruvinga

The UN recognises December 2 as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. Although such an initiative exists from the UN, modern slavery is still a global phenomenon. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 50 million people are victims of modern slavery.

Organisations such as the UN and ILO aim to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery, which include trafficking of persons, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. In a report recently released by the ILO, 50 million people are believed to be living in modern slavery.

This means that there is a significant global population that is either being forced to work against their will or in marriages that they were forced into entering. The most vulnerable groups affected are children and women. Several factors, such as climate change, armed conflict, and the Covid-19 pandemic, have caused certain sects within society to seek “a better life” at any cost, and this can be seen as a huge contributor to the figures released by the ILO. In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global community has committed to ending slavery among children by 2025 and universally by 2030.

This, however, seems unlikely. The revelations of this report are significant in that they reveal that countries face a mammoth task in meeting the SDGs. To address modern slavery, there is a need for the global community to use a holistic approach that, in addition to national governments, includes social partners, participants in the social and solidarity economy, businesses, investors, survivor groups, civil society, and other actors.

What remains clear is that the growing levels of poverty on a global level can be viewed as one of the main drivers of modern slavery. When considering the reason why people migrate, push and pull factors come to the fore. Push factors refer to individuals leaving a country because they are “pushed”; examples include natural disasters, war and political conflicts, lack of jobs or opportunities, and poverty.

Pull factors, on the other hand, are seen as motivating factors such as higher income, educational opportunities, and better public services. An analysis of the ILO’s report points to the fact that, in many instances, those who fall victim to modern slavery do so because of their desperation being exploited.

Although many are led to believe that slavery is primitive and has been confined to the annals of history, the ILO’s report has brought this discussion to light. The report is a clear indication of the current global state where citizens are being forced to find alternative forms of survival, which make them prey.

Regions such as Asia and the Pacific have a high number of individuals in modern slavery, and Arab states have the highest prevalence. As mentioned earlier, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed greatly to the plight of citizens, hence, the upward trend of modern slavery.

Previous global estimates indicate that there has been a 9.3 million rise in the number of people in modern slavery between 2016 and 2021. What is startling is that forced labour and forced marriage contributed to this rise. Forced marriages affect women and girls, and this is again a cause for concern for many governments around the world.

Drivers of forced marriages are patriarchal norms and social structures that drive forced marriages. The ILO notes that around 22 million people were in forced marriages in 2021, which was an increase of 6.6 million from 2016. Two-thirds of those forced to marry are female, and this equated to an estimated 14.9 million girls.

To address this, it has been recommended that, like with modern slavery, those most vulnerable should be the ones to be protected through sound government policies. Governments should consider passing gender-sensitive laws, policies, programmes, and budgets, including mechanisms that are gender-responsive.

Countries such as Kenya, Jordan, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have made great strides in addressing forced marriages. In Zimbabwe, for example, in January 2016, a human rights lawyer, Tendai Biti, represented two women in a landmark case in the country.

Biti represented Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, two young women who gave birth and were married before the age of 18. As a result, the High Court in Zimbabwe ruled that marriage before the age of 18 is illegal. Such a case is a positive step and must be a blueprint that can be followed by several countries.

Forced marriage violates international human rights conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Bringing child marriage to an end is also included under the SDGs target 5.3.

Surprisingly, there is no universal definition for forced marriage, and this is a stumbling block towards addressing the challenge it poses. There is also a requirement for laws to be in place to tackle underlying factors that make forced marriage a reality.

These factors include gender inequality and protecting girls from being forced into marriages against their will. In essence, the law should provide equal access to social protections and safety nets against laws such as dismissal on grounds of pregnancy.

Laws should not be used to place women in vulnerable positions, but laws should be used to protect women. More than half of all forced marriages can be found in upper-middle-income or high-income countries, which can point to how the lure of moving to first-world countries is being used to abuse the vulnerable. The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that have been present globally for several years.

This has resulted in the rise in cases of modern slavery that has affected the vulnerable in society – mainly women and children. National governments have an important role in creating environments that provide citizens with the platform to thrive.

Due to several reasons, it has become clear that national governments in some developing countries have failed to provide this, and this has made citizens vulnerable and thus become victims of modern slavery.

Taruvinga is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Wits Humanities Graduate Centre.