There are more slaves today than at any other point in human history.
— E. Benjamin Skinner, A Crime So Monstrous
For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine that in 2009 there are more than 27 million people, most of them women and children, being held against their will. Many are abused or carried across international borders and exploited as servants, forced prostitutes or laborers. Many of them never make it out. If they do, it’s not unusual that they no longer possess their sense of humanness or the will to continue living.
Busted Halo’s three-part series on modern-day slavery and human trafficking aims not only to raise consciousness and concern about these two incredibly important human rights issues, but also to move readers to action.
How a group of Kentucky eighth graders freed child slaves in Africa
In February 2007, Leslie Hughes’ reading class debated over an annual service project. The eighth graders at St. Joseph’s School in Crescent Springs, Kentucky, said, “Mrs. Hughes, we know you’re not our project leader, but do you have any ideas?”
Hughes did. She had just seen a television report on the atrocities happening to hundreds of children in West Africa. Fishermen in the region recruit children who live in outlying villages — toddlers to teenagers — by convincing families that their children will move away to learn a skill. Instead, the fishers abuse and exploit the children. For filling shifts of up to 18 hours in decrepit canoes on the dark, deep waters off Ghana’s coast, the fishermen feed the children one daily meal. Under their masters, many of these children suffer regular beatings, rape, malnutrition, and muscularly disproportionate bodies due to constant swimming and rowing. Some witness the inevitable drowning of a companion. A Missouri mother’s rescue of child slaves in Ghana gained national media attention, which compelled Hughes to take action: “I couldn’t get what I saw on TV out of my mind.”
When she mentioned the idea to the eighth graders, their response was instant: “Let’s do it.” By the time the dismissal bell rang, the class had committed to rescuing 50 child fishing slaves in Africa.
The following week Hughes presented the kids with a slide show to illustrate the lives of child fishing slaves. She also told the class how much money they would need to rescue 50 of them: a whopping $160,000. (The most any St. Joseph’s class had raised was $5,000.) Student Molly Donahue, now in tenth grade, says, “I honestly didn’t know if we could do it. We only had a couple months.”
But her students’ tenacity inspired Hughes. She continued to research until she found Free The Slaves, a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization that could perform a rescue for $500 per child victim. Her husband, a financial adviser, coached her on fundraising and helped her rework the numbers into a still-challenging but considerably more feasible $25,000. “He told me, ‘You can do this, but you have to go big.’ Bake sales and car washes just wouldn’t raise the $25,000 we needed.”
Hughes and her class penned letters to local businesses soliciting donations. They prepared a PowerPoint presentation to persuade potential donors to contribute, and secured donated space and appetizers to hold a fundraising event from a local Chinese restaurant. The community began writing checks, and when a local newspaper ran a story on the class’s efforts, donations from the public poured into Hughes’ mailbox. In just three months, the class raised $30,000, and because Molly Donahue’s mother, Julie, worked at Delta Airlines, she was able to score four tickets to Ghana for $1600 total, instead of the $10,000 they would normally cost.
How would this affect the students?
However, even with the rescue’s logistics under control, there was an ethical question for Hughes to answer: How was the project affecting her students? “Early on, there were some parents who came to me in private and said, ‘This is crazy. You’re setting our kids up to fail.’ But I had to tell myself that after all this, even if we only rescued one child, wouldn’t that be worth it? Wouldn’t my students value from that?”
She designed a reading curriculum around novels with subjugated protagonists. The students journaled every day, taking on the role of the stories’ main characters to gain appreciation for what exploitation feels like. Molly Donahue says, “My book had to do with a girl in a different country who was my age or a little younger. I felt like, ‘Whoa, it’s crazy that’s going on.'” The students worked during class time and after school to develop a website and more donation materials. Hughes maximized the opportunity to make the lesson morally enriching as well as academic.
In July 2007, she flew 11 hours to Ghana with her father and Molly and Julie Donahue. The journey intimidated Molly: “I got really nervous because I’d seen a couple pictures that showed me that Africa wasn’t like America, with [our] trees and streets and colors.” Hughes’ group met with the children who were under the care of Free The Slaves’ partner group in Ghana, called APPLE (Association of People for Practical Life Education). Free The Slaves Director of Partnerships Ginny Baumann explains that APPLE establishes itself in small villages to educate parents about their children’s experiences if they have been sent off to work. The parents write letters to the fishermen demanding the liberation of their children. Then APPLE traces the traffickers and delivers the letters, making fishermen aware that they are violating anti-slavery laws. (Baumann says on only a few occasions have authorities needed to get involved.) When the fishermen agree to let the children go, APPLE returns to the home villages with the children’s photos so the parents can identify their children.