As the shadow of modern-day slavery darkens across the globe—with perhaps as many as 27 million caught in its grip—more and more survivors are stepping out to design solutions and cast light on the root causes. At 23, I lived in Thailand, near the Burma border.
I often daydreamed on my sleeping mat in the stifling heat of the early mornings before going out to interview women refugees who had recently crossed into Thailand. I already knew many of the tales I would hear—the agony these women, young and old, felt while fleeing grinding poverty, rape, and ethnic cleansing waged by brutal Burmese army troops.
The weariness and fear in their eyes screamed that they had nowhere to go and families to care for. I tossed and turned knowing that many would end up like the tens of thousands of women and girls from Burma in underground brothel death traps, where the HIV/AIDS infection rate can be as high as 80 percent. I daydreamed of time-stopping the perpetrators—the troop movements frozen, the gears of the smuggling trucks locked, the keys to the brothel doors dangling in place. I envisioned the women and girls stepping out from the dark lairs, tentatively poking their heads into the quiet streets, grasping hands, finally free. I saw them congregating, reuniting, embracing, talking, and crying, building small communities to heal and care for each other. I heard them eagerly discussing and creating blueprints for a society where the horrors they had faced would never again take place.
Today I am amazed to witness the many hundreds of vibrant outposts of courage and hope cropping up on the frontlines of the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. This edition is devoted to the women and child leaders who have broken free from the vicious cycle of human trafficking and are blazing new paths to safety and empowerment for others. Women make up 80 percent of trafficking victims, children 50 percent, and it is their leadership that will show us a way forward. So much more than survivors, these modern-day abolitionists are entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, poets, champions.
Armed with an intimate knowledge of traffickers' false promises and an understanding of the psyche of victims, they are founding safe houses, driving policy initiatives, architecting tight cross-border enforcement, and raising their once-silenced voices to campaign loudly for women's rights and economic opportunity everywhere. But in the face of an enormously lucrative industry, these women leaders must wake up every day more determined than those who profit from it.
Their voices must lift louder to pierce the policy circles of privilege and power. They need every possible ounce of support so they can rapidly expand their influence.
As I learn about the new solutions women are bringing forth, I am reminded that we must invest in women and their ideas to foster true change. Effective women-led programs are struggling with lack of resources, but their voices, and their solutions, hold the key to transformational change. And above all, we must listen to survivors and ensure that every international conference, public policy debate, and NGO planning session places these voices at the center of each discussion. Too often, experts speak for those who have lived the experience. We must harbor these women survivors and honor their voices and experiences.
Although we cannot stop time, we can do everything in our power to break down the walls of isolation, fear, and poverty by funneling resources to survivor-led solutions. By supporting these initiatives, we will finally be able to grow the earth-shaking leadership potential that is poised to step out of the shadows and freeze the forces behind trafficking in their tracks.