National Freedom Day: A Commitment to End Modern Slavery

Today is National Freedom Day, commemorating President Lincoln’s signing of the joint resolution that led to the Constitution’s 13th Amendment banning slavery in the United States. It is a day when freedom for all Americans is celebrated. Yet, almost 150 years later, while one form of slavery has been abolished in our country, another has quietly flourished around the world.

From forced labor to sex trafficking to child soldiers, modern slavery entails the use of force, fraud, or coercion of another for the purposes of exploitation. An estimated 20 million men, women and children around the world, including thousands in the United States, are living in bondage, confirming that the fight to end slavery is far from over. Today we reflect on what we’ve accomplished and recommit ourselves to what President Obama called “one of the great human rights causes of our time.”

USAID has been committed to combating human trafficking for over a decade, programming more than $180 million in nearly 70 countries since 2001. Our efforts are part of a larger government-wide approach that has involved nearly every federal department and agency. Today, we are expanding our commitment, answering President Obama’s call to end this barbaric human rights offense.  

A year ago at the White House, we launched a new Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy (C-TIP), focusing on concrete, measurable principles and objectives that include increasing institutional accountability within USAID and leveraging innovation, 21st century technology, and partnerships to combat trafficking. 

With procurement specialists and legal advisors, we have created a Standard Operating Procedure to bolster compliance with USAID’s Code of Conduct, holding our employees, contractors, and grantees to the highest standards of behavior. We’re training our workforce to recognize and report human trafficking incidents; all USAID employees must report suspected violations. We’re increasing protections against abuses prior to awarding contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements, and we’re responding to allegations of abuse swiftly and decisively.

Our team was also proud to play an active role in the whole-of-government effort, led by the White House, to put in place the President’s Executive Order 13627 on Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts.  

The U.S. Government recognizes that no country or government alone can end modern slavery. It will take people and organizations outside of government. That’s why we are especially eager to engage young people and students who are uniquely qualified and positioned to help stimulate change through 21st century technology. Traffickers are using technology, like online classified ads, social networking sites, and SMS texting, to lure victims. We want to harness technology to combat these criminals. 

In October 2012, a few short weeks after President Obama’s moving speech on human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative, USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah launched Challenge Slavery, a Campus Challenge, at Pepperdine University. The Campus Challenge invited students and scholars on campuses across the United States and around the world to submit innovative, forward-looking solutions to prevent trafficking, rescue victims, and provide support to survivors.

We cannot wait to announce the winners this March, though perhaps most exciting is the opportunity to grow a global network of C-TIP champions. 

 2012 was truly an incredible year for USAID and the world-wide counter-trafficking movement. We trained hundreds of government and social workers on protecting the rights of trafficking victims in Cambodia; we watched as 70,000 young people gathered in the People’s Square in Burma for a historic MTV EXIT counter-trafficking concert; and we were there when ten South Eastern European countries adopted a shared Standard Operating Procedure to care for trafficking victims.

While there will be obstacles, I believe 2013 will yield even more progress. We still need more data to better tailor our C-TIP programs and establish concrete baselines so we can measure progress and results. We need to better understand the combination of variables that enable certain actors to engage in C-TIP activities, and the impact of our interventions, so we can replicate what works and learn from what doesn’t.

But the momentum is truly building. Someday soon I hope February 1st will be known as “International Freedom Day,” celebrating the end of modern slavery around the world. 

Sarah Mendelson is Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict & Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.

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