Slavery or Starfish?


Talk about an intense summer read! If you’re bold enough to take on a book that will wrench your heart, but leave you inspired and encouraged at the same time, pick up Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn.

In their book, Kristof and WuDunn reveal the modern day slavery of today: sex trafficking—a scene that will horrify you, real stories and interviews that will make you sick to your stomach of the treatment of women, and details that will paint a graphic reality of what happens when a fifteen year old girl is kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel. (Quite a bit different and even more horrifying than what we see in the popular movie, Taken.) Kristof and WuDunn brilliantly break into the underground slavery of today and call us to join the fight as current day slave abolitionists.

Prepare for tears and a knotted up stomach as you read stories of young girls who were kidnapped and bound into prostitution, raped, and maligned. For example, you will meet Meena, an Indian Muslim who was only eight or nine when she was kidnapped and trafficked to a brothel. She was demoralized, beat, raped, and drugged into obedience of her brothel owner to serve customer after customer after customer—ten or more a day, for seven days a week. You will also read success stories of women and a couple who were rescued from the brothels and pursued prosperous lives. The more you read, the more you will wonder, “How can something as horrific as this still exist today? I thought slavery ended!”

“Far more women and girls are shipped into brothels each year in the early twenty-first century than African slaves were shipped into slave plantations each year in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries” (p. 11).

The reason prostitution still exists at such a large scale level is for the same reason slavery existed in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries; people viewed blacks as unworthy, unequal, etc., and people today view these young girls who are captured and forced into the world of sex trafficking as “subhuman” as well. For example, Kristof talked to a man at the India/Nepal border (a border where Nepali girls are trafficked into India to the Kolkata brothels) who shared this exact view. The border officer’s job was to monitor supplies, look out for terrorists, and look for smuggled or pirated goods. When Kristof asked if the officer looked for trafficked girls, adding that there must be many girls that get trafficked, the officer’s response was, “Oh, a lot. But we don’t worry about them. There’s nothing you can do about them” (23-24).

When Kristof prodded further, suggesting that trafficking girls is an important concern as pirating DVDs, the officer “laughed genially” and said, “There has always been prostitution in every country. And what’s a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?” Furthermore, he added that though it’s “unfortunate” that Nepali girls are kidnapped and imprisoned in the brothels, they are just “peasant girls” who can’t read. He admits, “These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe.” (24)

What a sick way of thinking… that’s the kind of repulsive thinking that went on during the Atlantic slave trade (sacrifice the blacks to help the “good people”). How awful is it that a mindset such as this still exists today but in a different form?

“People get away with enslaving village girls for the same reason that people got away with enslaving blacks two hundred years ago: The victims are perceived as discounted humans (p. 24).”

The authors’ conservative estimate declares over 3 million girls and women remain enslaved in the sex trade (not counting the millions who are “manipulated and intimidated” into this so-called “chosen” prostitution or the millions more who are under eighteen and not accounted for anywhere else (p.10).

So why am I writing this in my blog? Because, the women in this book remind me of the boldness of Esther and the heart of Mother Teresa, and it has inspired me to become more bold in my own mission in Swazi. Kristoff and WuDunn believe that one of the best ways to combat the problem is through increasing education (69). They write about success stories of building schools and ways to keep girls educated.
Mahdere Paulos, who runs the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association agrees: “Empowering women begins with education” (66).

The book is not just about prostitution and sex trafficking, but about the general oppression of women, especially in India, China, Africa and elsewhere. Though the stories are horrifying, the authors make it clear it is not a book about hopelessness, but a book of hopeful opportunity. They write with a purpose to call you to arms—to join the fight of turning “oppression into opportunity” and to abolish the slavery of our century today.

I am joining this fight as I travel to Swaziland to eventually build a school. I also intend to more fervently pursue Tanele, the 13 year old girl whom I love as if she were my own child, who sold herself into prostitution a year ago, as well as others like her. (Tanele’s story is in the previous blog.)

Though it seems daunting and hopeless to abolish sex slavery and save all young girls and women from sex trafficking, it is worth the fight, even if I help save just one life…Just like the boy in “The Starfish Story” (by Loren Eiseley) who upon seeing the many starfish dying on shore starts throwing them back into the ocean. Another man then walks up to the boy and questions the boy’s logic in trying to save all the hundreds of starfish that have been washed upon shore. “You can’t possibly make a difference!” the man retorts after pointing out the miles and miles of beach with dying starfish. The boy looks gently at the man, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the ocean. “It sure made a difference for that one.”

Though Tanele may be only one girl in a tide of millions caught in prostitution, though I can’t solve the problem of sex trafficking, and though I can only educate so many children at once, I still intend on making a difference in our world, one starfish at a time.

Recent Comments

  • Free the Slaves

    Tuesday, 13 Jul, 2010

    Thanks for a great posting, and for your efforts to share this problem. I understand how coming to grips with the size of modern slavery can leave people feeling overwhelmed. But there's an interesting paradox about the 27 million slaves in the world – yes, it is a huge number, the largest ever in human history, but it is also the smallest fraction of the human population to ever be in slavery. Likewise, the amount of money slaves pump into the world economy is big, around $50 billion a year, but it is also the smallest fraction of the global economy to ever be represented by slave labor.

    The truth is that slavery has been pushed to the edge of its own extinction and working together we can tip it over the brink. There’s a law against slavery in every country, and more and more people are united in wanting to end it- yourself included! While no one person can end slavery alone, we all can together. I hope you'll visit and share our website –, and have a look at our book on how we can bring slavery to an end in 25 years, it is called: Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves.

    All best wishes,
    Kevin Bales

  • Mary-Kate Martin

    Saturday, 17 Jul, 2010

    Wow! Thanks for this post. I checked out the website and am extremely excited to read more. I also look forward to reading your book and passing along the info! I appreciate you taking time to post this!


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