The last year has seen such blatant violations of children’s rights that instead of being shocked the international community has sadly begun to accept these abuses as normal.
We have seen how thousands of Nepalese girls, forced onto the streets after the Nepal earthquake, have been trafficked into India and even possibly sold into the United Kingdom. Gross abuses, including rape, have been reported in Iraq. We have heard, first hand, how Syrian refugee girls as young as eight and nine have been forced into working for exploitative employers when they should be at school. And the plight of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from their school two years ago in Nigeria’s Borno province continues to haunt us.
This month the Global Citizenship Commission — which reports to the U.N. Secretary-General — will call for a renewed commitment to ending slavery among young children. Modern slavery has permeated every aspect of our lives. Adults and children, many of them young girls, are being trafficked within and across countries to work in farms, factories or workshops. A recent report shows that there is a shocking rise in the number of children being used in suicide bombs.
Modern forms of slavery take hold where there is conflict and corruption, and where there is systematic discrimination and inequality. With 60 million peopledisplaced from their homes, levels of displacement due to conflict are at an all-time high and it means increased competition for low paying jobs, but also more child labour, more children forced begging on the streets and more girls forced into early marriage, with state authorities unable to prevent trafficking.
And while every country in the world except North Korea has laws that criminalise some form of slavery, human trafficking or forced labour, not all have credible and deliverable plans to do something about it.
While some countries have specialist security services and thousands of police, prosecutors and judges trained to respond to crime, far fewer countries have victim support services to rescue and rehabilitate victims of slavery and abuse. What’s more, we have little experience of enforcing laws across borders to prevent the people smugglers and criminal gangs who exploit and destroy young lives for profit.
The Global Citizenship Commission has recently demanded an international criminal children’s court to deal with cases of child abuse when national governments refuse to act. They have also recommended that the U.N. Security Council meet once every year as a children’s council so that violations against children can be monitored, punished and prevented.
Business has a role to play in ending slavery, too. In 2016, President Obama closed loopholes in the U.S. Tariff Act 1930. The result is that no company can import into the United States goods made with forced or slave labour.
With the U.S. Department of Labor maintaining an annually updated list of products produced by forced labour, already there is evidence of greater social responsibility among the business community. The U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires all companies with a turnover of more than 36 million GBP to report publicly on their efforts to ensure they are not using slave labour in their supply chains.
Slavery cannot be combated with kid gloves. Modern slavery is an organised crime that requires the united might and will of all world leaders, businesses, and civil society to curb and combat it. We need robust policies that are adequately resourced and backed by effective enforcement with strong legal deterrents and economic sanctions where necessary.
What is new is a global civil rights struggle led by young people themselves against these modern forms of slavery. We know the difference that a campaign led by young people can make. The Global March Against Child Labourhas highlighted the plight of 168 million children who are in child labour — and the10 million school-age girls a year who are married off against their will. We need to give practical support to young people themselves in organizations like Girls Not Brides and the Global March Against Child Labour as they themselves stand up for their own rights. One of the Citizenship Commission’s recommendations is long overdue — that every country has a youth parliament that can meet to debate and campaign for young people and the services they need.
But it is education that makes the greatest difference. Getting children to school — and registering their attendance — is the biggest weapon against child labour, child marriage and child trafficking. And giving children an education offers the greatest opportunity for children to learn that slavery is evil. It also gives young people hope — that they can plan and prepare for their future. It is universal education that will spell the end of child slavery, and from the richest city of the richest country to the poorest slum and hovels of the developing world, we should unite in demanding an end to exploitation and universal education for all.