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Coming to grips with slavery

e-connect talks with Jenny Stanger, a Sydney-based exponent of Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery, who conducted training for The Salvation Army in Melbourne last month.

Jenny Stanger
e-connect: Jenny, where are people being trafficked from?
Jenny Stanger: What we know so far, and you can look for specific information from government sites, is that the majority of clients in our service have come from Africa, even as far as eastern Europe, all the way over to Australia.  We haven’t had anyone [in Sydney’s traffic and slavery safe house] from North America or South America, but we’ve had people from Eastern Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, East Asia and the Pacific Islands.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people from South America. We’ve heard about cases, and when we do workshops like this we hear about other cases and they describe it… we had someone talk to us about 22 Peruvian cleaners, both men and women, who were trafficked to Sydney. They were brought over as international students, recruited from an urban ghetto in Lima.

The case worker… described pretty bad working conditions and a high level of control by the employer. Some workers had gotten away and gone to this community organisation seeking help. The organisation didn’t really know what to do and in the end they lost track of these people.  The initial response is really important. We heard about a year after it happened, and we weren’t able to go back and find them.

e-connect:  You’ve said that 30% of the clients at the Salvation Army safe house are women who have been rescued from servile or slavelike marriages. Is it possible to break down the other percentages of clients’ origin stories?

JS: The other clients? Probably… At present, we have half of the clients in the safe house are women who have experienced forced marriage overseas. They have fled here seeking asylum.

e-connect: That 50% is across all the clients you care for?

JS: At the moment… it’s a group of people we don’t want to forget about. It’s not just, you know, women and young women here in Australia who are experiencing forced marriage ‘here’. It’s a global problem, and our service will assist those who have endured it elsewhere, because it’s a slaverylike practice...

e-connect: And while we think it happens ‘far away’, where someone will kidnap young girls in Africa for example, it’s also true that it’s an Australian and a global problem?

JS: Forced marriages? Yes, we know of forced marriages that are local, including people who have experienced forced marriage, people ‘at risk’ of forced marriage… It’s a practice in the Pacific Islands, it’s a practice in China, in South Asia and Africa. We’ve had cases from north, south, east and west Africa. It’s not restricted to one area of the world.

We’ve been surprised by the prevalence, and it is a significant issue in the Pacific Islands.

e-connect: You’ve said that a central question for all survivors of trafficking and slavery is, ‘At what point did you lose your free will? At what point was your capacity for autonomy taken away from you by force?’ Can you explain that ‘common denominator’ experience?

JS: a loss of control over their lives. One of the difficulties in trying to identify this or have a victim explain their situation to you, is that they may never have had control over their own life, even before they were trafficked or caught up in the slavery situation. They may not even be aware of this… Developing the skills to elicit the right information; it’s something that you get better at, the more you talk to people – the more and different cases you are exposed to.

e-connect: Recently in Brisbane, a woman was found to have  trained her child to be a sex worker from the age of nine. The police arrested the ‘customer’ – this poor girl was 15. We don’t know what understanding she had of her situation, or the poverty or the culture…coercion, lack of food, abuse… how can we even begin to comprehend the ‘why’ that motivated the parent? Is it a normalisation of slavery?

JS: Unfortunately there are a lot of cases of extreme child abuse like that case. We’ve had one in New South Wales late last year, where there was an entire community of people living in tents in rural community doing horrendous things to their own children, including a lot of sexual abuse. They also got the children to engage sexually with each other. We are talking about a community of 30, 40 people.  I can’t imagine… I can’t begin to get into the minds of those people.

e-connect: Is that the challenge, when we try to communicate and realise our desire to end slavery? At what point, if we can’t comprehend the actions, can we overcome the obstacles?

JS: I think one of the obstacles is being overwhelmed by the severity of abuse, and thinking that you can’t contribute to the solution. Everyone can contribute. Even a small contribution.

There are schoolchildren in Australia who are taking up this issue of slavery now, learning about it and protesting its existence, getting their schools on board.  

I can tell you about people I have worked with, and I have had the privilege of working alongside them on their walk to freedom. Enslaved people are counting on us to help them find that freedom, and we are counting on the community to help us do so. To be a part of this new freedom partnership we are launching in July, because there is no action that is too small.

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