Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- When you say slavery, most Americans think about what ended with The Civil War. With relief, we think: That was then.

But slavery is, unfortunately, now.

We call it "human trafficking" these days, an almost innocuous-sounding term, but it is slavery by any other name. And the numbers are stunning. Around the world, as many as 1.1 million human beings, mostly women and children, are "trafficked" across international borders and sold each year into slavery, according to the U.S. State Department.

If one counts all the people forced into servitude -- from farms in India to charcoal mines in Brazil -- the numbers reach into the millions. Even the U.S. has become a major importer of sex slaves, with estimates running between 14,500 and 17,500. Of those, 80 percent are women and half are minors.

Although the U.S. has been monitoring trafficking since 1994 -- and Congress passed a trafficking victims protection act in 2000 -- slavery hasn't seized the American imagination the same way apartheid once did, or as Darfur has in recent years. That may begin to change with two new films -- one a documentary and the other a mainstream film starring Kevin Kline -- that are aimed at disturbing our slumber.

They are effective.

In "Sold," a documentary by former ABC producer Jody Hassett Sanchez, we meet Pakistani boys as young as 3 sold into service as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. We also meet little girls as young as 5 who had been sold as sex slaves.

One of the challenges of modern-day slavery is that good people are often unknowingly complicit. Many of the children featured in the documentary are sold by their impoverished parents, who were promised that their children would have better lives. The reality is something different. Little girls end up as abused prostitutes, while little boys sold as jockeys spend 12 or more hours a day strapped onto the backs of camels, are shocked with metal prods and fed saltwater to prevent their gaining weight.

At a screening here Wednesday, Sanchez told an audience that included U.S. Reps. Mary Bono, R-Calif., and Connie Mack, R-Fla., that she wanted to focus on people who were working to end slavery. She followed three faith-driven people -- a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian from India, Pakistan and Togo, respectively -- who have suffered threats and beatings to save women and children.

Sanchez says she hopes her documentary, which is cinematically beautiful despite the hideous subject, will inspire Americans, especially young people, to take action.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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