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Slavery. Perhaps surprising to many, it’s a thriving industry in the 21st century. According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, nearly 36 million people worldwide are subject to contemporary slavery and human trafficking. While most victims of human trafficking hail from Asia and Africa, the complex issue of modern slavery is a global problem that affects both the Global North and South. Human trafficking appears in various forms – from sweatshops in Vietnam where children labor tirelessly, to sex slaves on the busy streets of Bangkok. Human trafficking is a business that exploits the vulnerability of women and children, in particular, to satisfy the financial and sexual appetites of the perpetrators, the traffickers.

Students and faculty at Webster University’s Leiden campus are doing their part to battle the pervasive nature of human trafficking as the forces of globalization have made it a 21st-century crisis. Webster University professor and Behavioral and Social Sciences Department Chair Dr. Sheetal Shah has started what is known as the Bijlmer (pronounced “BALM-ER”) Project. This is a research-and-intervention-based collaborative effort between Webster University-Leiden and the Christian Aid & Resources Foundation (CARF) through which victims of human trafficking are treated for the emotional and mental trauma caused by sexual exploitation. Bijlmer is a multiethnic neighborhood in Amsterdam that has been labeled a ghetto as a result of its high migrant populace.

Shah says the project takes the classroom “outside,” giving her psychology students a sense of what it’s like to work in the field of providing mental health support to special target groups of people who need assistance but can’t afford it. These practical experiences serve as internships for Webster-Leiden psychology students, enhance their theoretical learning, and provide a unique blend of academia and work at the grassroots level.

Education & Awareness

According to Shah, people can be knowledgeable about a given subject, but it’s awareness that incites individuals to act on their convictions. “In the case of human trafficking,” she says, “people are not truly aware of it until it urges them to get involved somehow in the movement to abate it.” Nicole Rand, a Webster-Leiden graduate student in psychology, is a case in point. Rand currently interns for the Bijlmer Project while working on her thesis. Upon graduation she plans on starting her own practice in the Netherlands with a classmate, continuing her therapeutic work on sexuality and relationship matters.

Rand introduced the One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign to Webster-Leiden as a way to encourage people to become more knowledgeable about human trafficking. Webster-Leiden launched its first public OBR event on Valentine’s Day with a flash mob. Participants danced in the streets of Leiden and passed out flyers about the Bijlmer Project. “While the issue may seem hopeless to many,” Rand says, “spreading awareness and education about human trafficking and sexual exploitation is something that can begin to make a huge difference in combating this very serious global epidemic.”

Technology has made the dissemination of news and information for global issues like human trafficking easier than ever, all the more thanks to social media. And Webster-Leiden students have leveraged the power of social networking to get their Bijlmer Project message across with its Facebook and Twitter pages. Also, the official project website features a section spotlighting the unique impact that students are having on this issue.

Another student committed to advancing the mission of the Bijlmer Project is Julia Perez. A psychology major in her junior year, Perez joined the grassroots movement after having her curiosity about the intricacies of the Red Light District (RLD) piqued. “I was shocked to learn that the Red Light District wasn’t fully voluntary,” she says. Perez now serves as a peer mentor for sex trafficking and contemporary slavery, ensuring that her friends and classmates are privy to the whole truth about women employed in the RLD.

Thwarting the Industry of Contemporary Slavery

Human trafficking and modern slavery continue to thrive worldwide because of its profitability to those who are both indirectly and directly affected by it. The demand for sex slavery is quite high, perpetuated by those who pay for sex at brothels and areas known for high prostitution. No region of the world is exempt. While people, particularly women and children from the Global South, seem to be more vulnerable to trafficking because of “push” factors like illiteracy, political turmoil, natural calamity, and gender inequality, anybody at any time can become a target, Shah says.

What is more surprising is that people from the Global North are often unintentionally linked to human trafficking and modern slavery simply because of their normal consumer behavior. The foods people eat, the clothes they wear, and the electronics they relish to some extent correlates with the growing number of slaves. Everyone has a “contemporary slavery footprint” that gauges how many slaves an individual employs in any given year; Shah says her own number is 43.

Visit slaveryfootprint.org to take a survey that measures consumption patterns, concluding with the score for the number of slaves linked to the participant’s consumer behavior.

So how can an educated and informed citizenry collaborate to undermine human trafficking and contemporary slavery?

Part of the solution requires weakening its business model, which, right now, appears to be flourishing. It’s thriving, Shah says, because people today are demanding cheaper production and services. Providing education and awareness on the business model and system of human trafficking is the springboard by which real reform can occur.

In this way, people can become conscious enough to take action by learning to be smarter about their purchasing behaviors. “This may require switching brands or paying more money to shop from socially responsible companies that have eliminated the employment of modern-day slaves from their supply chain management,” Shah says.

Government accountability also has a role to play. Webster-Leiden grad student Rand says societies can reduce sex slavery and prostitution by making it a crime to visit or violate a sex worker but not to make it a crime to be a sex worker. She pointed to Sweden as an example. “This country has the lowest rate of human trafficking in the world because it has criminalized the act of buying sex, while protecting sex workers from incarceration and prosecution.”

Next Steps: “Mend the Broken and Make Strong the Weak”

Shah and her Bijlmer Project colleagues now are securing funding – largely through crowdsourcing – for the project’s second phase, Bridge2Hope, which launched last year. This phase provides continued support to human trafficking survivors by empowering them toward economic, psychosocial and spiritual freedom. While the first phase centered more on qualitative research, in the form of intensive interviews and focus groups, and counseling support for victims, Bridge2Hope will enable survivors to take ownership of their lives through a rehabilitation and reintegration program that will teach them the entrepreneurship and life skills necessary to lead a productive life.

“Financial sustainability is a practical hurdle this year,” Shah says, but she is confident they can succeed with the help of generous benefactors and professionals willing to lend their expertise pro bono to the project. She welcomes all fundraising ideas as well as donations for the Bijlmer Project. Learn more about it at thebijlmerproject.com.

For those interested in delving deeper into the plight of human trafficking, Shah recommends Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Day Slavery, a book by S. Kara that explores the commercial nature of the crisis. She also recommends the documentary film The Price of Sex that investigates the netherworld of sex slavery in Eastern Europe.

For Shah, the Bijlmer Project fulfills the Webster University mission of ensuring high quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence. “True education is getting students to understand someone else’s reality, and in this case, to be conscious enough to get involved in the fight against human trafficking.” Shah was a speaker at TEDx Delft Women at the end of May, focusing on her "classroom outdoors" concept and the Bijlmer Project.

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