A Life Saved: How a U.S. Law Helps Fight Slavery

By Jesse Eaves, Senior Policy Adviser for Child Protection, World Vision
Published on January 15, 2013 in CNN Freedom Project

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Simean knew something was wrong when her 15-year-old younger sister Savoeun failed to show up at the factory where they both worked.

With both daughters helping to support their family, even one day off would put a great deal of strain on the family. What concerned Simean the most was a woman she had seen hanging around Savoeun at the factory the previous few days.

Simean asked her coworkers where her sister was. The answer sent a chill through her body: her sister said she was leaving Cambodia for Malaysia. Simean then ran to call her mother. She knew time was not on her side.

While Simean was alerting her parents, Savoeun was on a motorcycle taxi as it swerved in and out of the chaotic traffic of Phnom Penh.

She held tightly onto a plastic bag containing the few items she had been told to take with her – among them a change of clothes and her older sister’s birth certificate.

The woman had promised to quadruple her salary if she went with her to Malaysia to take a job as a caregiver.

Savoeun said yes – just like a lot of people in the world’s richest nations would if someone offered such a huge rise. But for Savoeun it could have been a fatal mistake.

When Savoeun arrived in the capital city, the stark reality became clear. She was being shipped to Malaysia to be sold to the highest bidder.

It’s a familiar story of traffickers preying on the desperate. Human trafficking like this is modern day slavery.

It touches every country on earth and today, there are estimated to be more than 20 million slaves in the world; more than during any other time in human history.

For more than a decade, governments around the world have worked hard to develop laws and responses to the $32 billion trade in human beings, according to U.N. figures.

From 2000 to 2012, the United States was a global leader in combating modern day slavery. The centerpiece of that leadership was found in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

This law directs the U.S. response to human trafficking both domestically and around the world. The law emphasizes prevention of the crime; the protection of survivors, and the prosecution of traffickers.

In 1999, a 12-year-old girl was taken from Savoeun’s village. She was raped and killed. Community members admit they didn’t take any action because back then, no one knew what to do.

After that horrific event, World Vision worked with community leaders and, most importantly, young people including Simean, to empower them to know what to do if someone falls victim to violence, abuse, or exploitation.

Over a decade later, when Savoeun failed to show up for work at the factory, Simean put her knowledge to work. She made a phone call and the community jumped into action.

Her family contacted their local mayor who called the local police. They, in turn, called the national police and several investigators, who had been trained by FBI agents from the United States, started following every lead they could.

The training provided by the FBI was authorized by the TVPA.

Two days after she failed to show up for work, Savoeun was able to make a phone call to her uncle when her captors weren’t looking.

Within a few hours, the police, her uncle and mother had safely removed her from harm’s way.

The community and police credit their training and prevention efforts as being key to finding Savoeun. Without those efforts, it’s possible Savoeun might never have been seen again.

In September 2012, President Obama said: “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great causes of our time, and the United States will continue to lead it.”

Unfortunately, Congress let U.S. leadership lapse when they allowed the previous session to expire without renewing the law.

This bill, which has had nearly a decade of unanimous, bi-partisan support, has become just another casualty of the petty political games played by this most recent Congress.

In September 2012, President Obama called renewing the TVPRA a “no-brainer.”It is vital that his next administration works closely with Congress to make sure they pass the best law possible for the protection of survivors like Savoeun; prevention through trained communities like Simean’s; and prosecution of traffickers like the recruiter in Cambodia.

The lapse of the law is shameful. But there is time for redemption. For those in the U.S., call your Senators and Congressional Representative right now. Three phone calls can help make the difference between children like Savoeun finding freedom or slipping into the darkness of modern day slavery.