Faith groups throughout the USA observed the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness on 11 January 2008, seeking also move beyond consciousness of the problem to collaborative actions towards ending exploitation.
The day of awareness was established in June 2007 by a concurrent resolution of the US Congress. The National Council of Churches USA' Justice for Women Working Group has played a significant role in promoting it.
Everyday tesn of thousands of people worldwide are coerced into bonded labour, bought and sold in prostitution, exploited in domestic servitude, enslaved in agricultural work and in factories, and captured to serve as child soldiers.
While estimates of the numbers vary widely, the US government recently reported that 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty percent of them are female and almost half are minors.
These figures do not include the millions who are trafficked into labour and sexual slavery within national borders. The International Labour Organization (ILO) - the United Nations agency charged with addressing labour standards, employment and social protection issues - estimates there are 12.3 million people in forced labour, bonded labour, forced child labour, and sexual servitude at any give time; other estimates range from 4 million to 27 million. (United States Department of State, Trafficking in Person Report, June 20007, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/82902.pdf)
These numbers are overwhelming, say campaigners, almost too large to comprehend.
"Yet each of these numbers is a person - a child of God. Each of these numbers has a story to tell - a story we need to hear", says NCCUSA.
They cite the example of a 14-year-old girl called Jenny, who left her native Nigeria for the United States to work in the home of a couple, also originally from an African country. She thought she would be paid to look after their children, but the reality was very different. For five years Jenny was repeatedly raped by her employer and his wife physically assaulted her, sometimes with a cane, and on one occasion with a high-heeled shoe. Tipped off by a local NGO [non-governmental organization], law enforcement officials rescued Jenny and prosecuted the perpetrator.
NCCUSA Human Rights Policy Statement declares: "As Christians, we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, that every person is of intrinsic worth before God and that every individual has a right to the fullest possible opportunities for the development of life abundant and eternal."
Campaigners point out that human trafficking denigrates the values of human life, exposes victim to serious health risks, endangers the mental well-being of victims and impedes the ability of victims to reach their full God-give potential.
Mark P. Lagon, Director for the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Person declared recently: "The church and people of faith as a whole have historically served as powerful agents of change. The faith-based community moves beyond advocacy and policy - critical components - and on to protective care, support and ultimately healing. We have seen faith communities fill a desperate need when it comes to victim identification. They are often the first line of defense, encountering victims long before traditional law enforcement or even social service providers."
Pastor Ann Tiemeyer, National Council of Churches' Programme Director for Women's Ministry, comments that: "In February 2008 when the members of the Justice for Women Working Group meet in New York City, we will recognize the work already accomplished throughout our communions and begin to strategize about how we can work together to effectively fight this crime against humanity and sin against God. We will seek to find new ways to assist each other in moving beyond a Day of National Awareness to a witness of collaborative action."
In Britain, both secular and faith groups are working on the issue, including Christian organisations like Churches Alert on Sex Trafficking in Europe (CHASTE) and various secular agencies and campaigns.
See also the Education and Action Resource produced by Church Women United, with in-depth background information and additional resource links http://www.churchwomen.org/human-trafficking/overview.asp