A slave is a person who is owned by another and is forced to work in degrading conditions. Despite the supposed abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom, we still house many trafficked individuals, who are the slaves of today.
Less well known than trafficking of adults, the United Nations estimates 8.5 million child slaves exist worldwide, 1.2 million of whom have been trafficked. Children such as five-year-old shepherds in rural Africa are not counted as slaves, for they still live at home and are helping their families. Yet elsewhere, children as young as seven are being sold for pitifully low sums by desperately poor parents. Imagine the fear and mounting despair should the new 'master' be harsh, or (as with many of the 24,000 children to be found in Jeddah) smuggle them into a strange land and force them to beg. Some have undergone deliberate mutilation to elicit more sympathy and more cash. They constantly risk deportation, while their new owners do not. Their young lives lurch from crisis to catastrophe.
Less noticeable are the 50,000 children employed in the sweatshops of Delhi, producing attractive handiwork for the tourist or textile trades. To the price of elaborately embroidered saris must be added the cost of a child's freedom. Detained illegally, these children often work 18 hours a day, sleeping in the shop and receiving minimal food. After years of this life, one 13-year-old was rescued and excitedly returned to his village. On seeing him, his poverty stricken mother wailed, 'Why have you come back to add to my sorrows?' His shocked, helpless bewilderment lingers in the mind and heart.
Elsewhere, children are kidnapped to become child soldiers or sex slaves, leaving them with indelible emotional damage. In Cambodia alone, a million children are trapped into commercial sex. They have either been kidnapped or promised good jobs by unscrupulous traders. Likely to be free at first from HIV, virgins as young as twelve are eagerly bartered for. Raids on brothels in the last decade have released a mere 3,000 young girls, but the pimps are rarely convicted.
So what can we do? Our Lord had – and has – a special heart for children. We too should therefore esteem and love them. In the so-called developed world, children can be enslaved by advertisements or by personal and parental ambition as much as by more obvious forms of abuse. Yet surely the huge problems of slave children in other parts of the world demand more than our prayers. We must search for and support appropriate agencies working where the action is.
Could it be that someone somewhere will also be called to become a Wilberforce for the world's enslaved children?