LOS ANGELES: The existence of slavery in the 21st century comes as a shock to many Americans who believe that the institution ended with the Civil War. Although slavery today is not legal, it flourishes.

The international slave trade reaches into every country around the world and involves, at the least, a few million people and, by some estimates, as many as 27 million. It includes the old-fashioned buying, selling and owning of humans as well as many forms of sexual exploitation and “bonded” labour — in which people are held against their will and forced to work on farms or in factories to pay off obligations that never end.

In the so-called advanced countries, the largest category is sex slavery, which is linked to legalised or tolerated prostitution. In the eastern countries, the largest category is domestic-servitude slavery, fed by a massive migration of young women from South Asia. In India, the largest category is bonded-labour slavery of the lowest castes in rice mills, carpet factories and brick kilns. In Uganda and Sri Lanka, the largest category is child-soldier slavery.

Modern slavery is more gender-based than race-based — most victims are girls. In many instances it is linked to organised crime, and globalisation plays a part as well. Except for bonded-labour slavery, rarely does one find a victim in her hometown; she has been trafficked from one region to another or across international borders.

There are signs of belated progress. When the US passed its anti-trafficking law in 2000, only a handful of countries had such laws. In the last two years, 80 countries have passed similar legislation. Several years ago, the number of human traffickers sent to jail numbered in the hundreds. In 2005, the year of the most recent State Department statistics, that figure was 4,700.

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the end of the slave trade in Britain, a first step toward full abolition in the British empire and later in the United States. That work was championed by hundreds of activists. Now it falls on us, their descendants, to continue their work, nurturing a new abolitionist movement for the 21st century.—Dawn/The Los Angeles Times News Service

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