Living in Servitude

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When a Colorado 4th grade class learned that slavery had not been relegated to the history books, it set in motion a modern-day media campaign that has captured international attention.
Though it was outlawed internationally in 1948, chattel slavery continues in some nations

Aurora, Colo.

Barbara Vogel, a veteran educator with 26 years in the classroom, had just completed a unit on slavery in American history when she and her students at Aurora's Highline Community School learned that half a world away, black people were still living as slaves.

"I didn't know it was happening," she says of the servitude imposed on members of tribes from southern Sudan.

Vogel wasn't alone in thinking that slavery had ended with the American Civil War in 1865.

Slavery was outlawed internationally by a 1948 United Nations document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 of the declaration states: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

But traditional slavery--called "chattel," referring to movable personal property--persists, as do other slaverylike practices, such as forced labor and debt bondage.

Slavery is also found in the northwest African, Islamic nation of Mauritania, where many black children are born into servitude and never become free. They can be sold and traded. They are used not just as laborers, but for sex and breeding as well, according to Charles Jacobs, the president of the American Anti-Slavery Group in Somerville, Mass.

Anti-Slavery International, a 160-year-old human-rights organization based in London, estimates the number of slaves in Sudan to be in the tens of thousands and in the hundreds of thousands in Mauritania, for a worldwide total of between 300,000 and 1 million.

Other types of involuntary servitude in developing countries often rely on deception to lure children and young people away from their families. In India and Pakistan, parents are often told their children will be educated. But instead, the children are trapped into making rugs, spending 12 to 14 hours a day at the carpet looms. It's estimated that more than 700,000 children--from toddlers to adolescents--are working in the rug industry.

That form of servitude has received some attention in Europe and the United States through the "Rugmark" campaign, an effort to put pressure on carpet manufacturers to make rugs without child labor. Factories that produce rugs without such labor and agree to other changes are allowed to put the Rugmark label on their carpets.

The campaign received the endorsement of Albert Shanker, the late American Federation of Teachers president, who devoted one of his "Where We Stand" columns to the effort.

In some countries where forced labor thrives, people are kidnapped off the streets or from their homes. Such servitude is often associated with a particular industry or line of work. For example:

  • When it's time to harvest sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, soldiers seek out Haitians and force them to work on plantations, according to anti-slavery activists.

'The Haitians still can't move around the country without fear of being arrested.'

Charles Jacobs, president,
American Anti-Slavery Group

The workers might receive a small wage, but they are not allowed to leave and often are beaten if they try to escape.

The United States has pushed for better treatment of the Haitian workers, but according to Jacobs of the AASG, little has changed.

"The Haitians still can't move around the country without fear of being arrested, sent to cut cane, or deported," he wrote in a 1996 article that appeared in World and I, an international newsmagazine.

  • In the Persian Gulf region, it's camel racing that uses forced labor. Young boys from Bangladesh and Sudan are used as jockeys for this popular form of entertainment.
  • In Thailand and some other Asian countries, it's prostitution. Girls, some as young as 8, are taken from their homes to be used in an industry patronized by Asians and by Western tourists. In some cases, the girls are sold by their parents to pay a debt.

In recent years, the United States and a handful of other Western nations have made it a crime for their citizens to engage in sexual abuse of children in other countries.

Forced labor has not been confined to foreign countries. Almost two years ago, a group of deaf and illiterate Mexicans who had been forced to sell pencils and other trinkets on the subways of New York City walked into a police station in Queens. They said that they had been smuggled into the United States in 1994 by other Mexicans, who had promised them jobs. Instead, the bosses took the workers' earnings and mistreated them and their children. The bosses eventually were prosecuted or deported.

In some cases, such as with child prostitution in Asia, the U.S. government has taken action against abuses of human rights, Jacobs says.

But the slavery that persists in Sudan and other places--what Jacobs calls the "stepchild of the human-rights movement"--has received little attention because it doesn't fit Americans' traditional image of slavery, he says.

"What motivates Westerners in the human-rights field is the correction of white conduct," Jacobs says. Some activists, he contends, are hesitant to speak out against slavery practiced by non-Western cultures.

Jacobs believes that in addition to literally freeing slaves, as Vogel's students have done, a new awareness of slavery in Sudan provides educators with a timely teaching opportunity.

Vogel, who volunteers as the education director for Jacobs' American Anti-Slavery Group, is working with a graduate student at Harvard University to develop a curriculum guide on modern-day slavery.

And judging by the number of phone calls Jacobs' office has been receiving, teachers are eager for guidance on how to present the issue to children.

"I do not think my children are unique," Vogel says about her students' dedication to freeing the Sudanese slaves. "They represent what the youth of the world will do if they are asked to do it."

The lessons will explain current forms of involuntary servitude in a "kid-friendly way," says Keffrelyn Brown, the Harvard graduate student working with Vogel. To keep the materials suitable for younger children, she says, the examples will not include sexual servitude.

The curriculum, says Brown, a former 4th grade teacher, also will introduce students to human-rights issues and organizations without being too political.

"What I hope is that it will help students to become aware of what's going on in their life, not something that happened years prior," Brown says. "What does that mean for us as world citizens? What does it say about our responsibility?"

Vol. 18, Issue 29, Page 22-27

Published in Print: March 31, 1999, as Living in Servitude
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