Witnessing and stopping exploitation

May 24, 2018 | Swanee Hunt

“Here’s a picture of me terrified.” Siddharth Kara gestures to the large screen at the front of a classroom; it shows an image of him standing in a shrine in front of the head juju priest of Edo State, Nigeria. Thirty Harvard graduate students are sitting in rapt attention, their minds and hearts captured by this former Wall Street investment banker, now considered one of the world’s foremost experts on human trafficking. I’m on the back row, shuffling through my notes anxiously, hoping not to say something stupid and embarrass my host, friend, and teacher. (In the twenty years I’ve taught at the Kennedy School of Government, I haven’t lectured in a class that meant as much to me.)

Siddharth’s course covers the range of labor and sex trafficking worldwide. He explains that women and girls account for 95% of sexual exploitation victims in a vast, multi-billion-dollar global industry. My hour will delve into the way to stop sex trafficking in the United States, by not (intuitively) focusing on the pimps, who are, after all, entrepreneurs. And we can’t stop this horror by rescuing girls, and certainly not by law enforcement rounding them up after neighbors complain that they’re “sullying” the street corners or hotel lobbies.

Instead, the key is stopping the buyers, whom we call “johns.” Almost without exception, those men are breaking the law. The public wouldn’t know that, of course, since every day police pick up vastly more “prostitutes” than men who have paid for their bodies. Usually the money goes to the pimp, who, survivors have told me, may be so kind as to buy her heroin to make her body and soul’s pain bearable. We’re not talking Pretty Woman. The large majority of prostituted girls and women say they would leave, if they had any options. Regardless of our view from the outside, they see none.

Siddharth has spent years documenting the devastating reality of modern slavery.

It’s a scene Siddharth has witnessed worldwide. Although I’ve worked in sixty countries, he has gone to places that are dark far beyond any I’ll ever know. Recently, Siddharth stayed with me in DC, where he had come from California for multiple engagements with scores of officials at the US Department of Labor. My friend was in excruciating pain from a piece of disc pressing on his sciatic nerve. Folded forward across the podium, with one leg extended behind him, where no one could see, he clutched the wooden ridge of the stand as he prepared to read from his latest book, Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective. I wondered how (and why) he would make it through the next two hours. But he began unexpectedly: “Maybe God gave me this pain to remind me of the pain of Sita.” I didn’t know what he meant until he opened his book.

The passage helped me understand:

I met Sita in a dusty village about forty kilometers outside the city of Bharatpur. Her mud-brick hut baked like an oven. Stray dogs with patches of missing fur skulked lazily between miserly pockets of shade. They growled, but meant no harm. Sita’s breathing was labored; she knew she was not long for this world. Before the end, she wanted to tell her story. She knelt to touch my feet, but I waved her up and said that I should be touching hers instead. I reached out my hand and asked her to take it. She looked at me nervously; no one like her is allowed to touch the skin of someone like me, unless of course it is because she has been purchased. She folded her hands in a gesture of respectful decline. I understood. We sat on the dirt inside her hut, and I told her I would listen, as long as she wanted. She took a sudden, desperate breath, the kind meant to quell a gathering storm of pain. Then she spoke.

What follows is the story of a thirteen-year-old whose virginity was sold to a businessman for about $1,000.

After two nights of pain (I tried not to cry, but I could not stop. My tears did not make him stop either.) her brother and uncle arranged customers—including tourists from Japan and Europe. I have seen so many colors of skin pressed against mine.

She was taken to a brothel in Delhi and did not see her mother for four years. When she became sick, she knew what that meant. She would not live long.

Sita was nineteen when her pimp sent her home to die. But in her last short time to live, she told Siddharth she wants to go to school and learn to read so that she can write a book and tell others how she has been treated.

I spent several hours with Sita, as I wanted to learn as much as I could about her—as a woman, an Indian, a human. I saw glimpses of a little girl still sparkling within her battered heart. She had movie-star crushes and favorite foods, and she found solace in meditation. It was my honor to spend time with her, brief as it was….

I knew I would never see Sita again. Before I left, I reached out my hands to her one last time. This time, she took them. I held her tight. I wanted to say so much, but only a few words emerged.

I am sorry. Please forgive us.