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Half the Sky: Exposing Sex Trafficking & Forced Prostitution

Updated on March 3, 2015

Gender Abuse Global Statistics

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century.

More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.

Source: Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.

Half The Sky Documentary Trailer: Empowering Women, Things We Can Do, Stories of Hope

Half the Sky: From Sex Slavery to Empowering Women Worldwide

Journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but they split at covering events that happen every single day. As a result, quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls in developing countries are so common in these areas that they often go unnoticed. Amongst them, the routine kidnapping and trafficking of thousands of girls into brothels goes on without coverage, it isn’t even considered news.

These are the kind of events that happen on a regular basis, which are overlooked by international press and politics, along with many other forms of gender violence happening in Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa. These are the kind of disregarded news that drove the authors of Half the Sky to write their book.

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, international journalists and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, have laid out an agenda for humanity that outlines a way to fight for women´s right and stop the gender based violence that keeps women down.

They focus on three particular abuses:

  • sex trafficking and forced prostitution (sex slavery),
  • gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape, and
  • maternal mortality, which still needlessly claims one woman a minute in the developing word.

Half the Sky is based on Kristof´s and Wudunn´s experience as journalists. It exposes the different forms of violence and female abuse they´ve witnessed throughout their professional lives.

Nevertheless, their work isn't a documentary on women´s oppression only, it also lays out precise solutions, such as girls´ education and micro-finance, which are already working to turn women´s oppression into opportunity worldwide. In doing so, they hope to, and I quote: "recruit readers to join the movement who´s main objective is emancipating women, and fight global poverty by unlocking women´s power as economic catalysts".

Half the Sky´s goal is "not a drama of victimization, but a role model of transformation and empowerment, the kind that can transform enslaved teenage brothel girls into free and successful business women". Many stories of triumph against adversity are also included.

The present article focuses on Sex Trafficking and Forced Prostitution: its problematic, its complexities and its solutions. I have chosen this particular form of abuse because it violates every possible human right and is inflicted upon little girls, who are forced time after time to endure the most horrific and degrading circumstances, and whose lives are utterly destroyed from a very young age.

Violation of Women´s Rights: Forms of Gender Based Violence and Abuse

  • Acid attacks: men burn with sulfuric acid the face of girls or women who have spurned them, the acid burns the skin and sometimes the bones underneath; if it strikes the eyes, the woman is blinded.
  • Poor medical care: thirty-nine thousand baby girls die in their first year of life annually in China because parents don´t give them the same medical care and attention that boys receive. Girls often don´t get vaccinated against preventable diseases, and they are not taken to the doctor when they are sick.
  • Maternal mortality.
  • Genital cutting.
  • Rape and the Culture of Sexual Predation.
  • Mass Rape.
  • Virginity cult and honor killings (when a woman doesn´t bleed on her wedding night).
  • Sex trafficking and forced prostitution (sex slavery).

The Problem of Sex Trafficking and Forced Prostitution

The everyday crimes of sex trafficking and forced prostitution entail a horrific list of women´s right violations, which go from the kidnapping of young girls itself, to their enslavement and constant sexual and physical abuse.

Once in the brothels, girls are raped on a regular basis and are denied the use of condoms. Brothel owners break the young women by physical violence, and keep them captivated by underfeeding them, which also ensures they will stay slim and attractive for all their customers.

The girls are also kept naked to reduce the chances of escape.

As if all this physical and psychological abuse wasn´t enough, brothel owners often give girls methamphetamines to keep them compliant and dependent. Many of them become addicted to the drug.

The police are often colluded in forced prostitution, making the chances of escape quite slim. Bribes are paid and sex trafficking becomes profitable for law enforcement, feeding the cycle of forced prostitution.

Kristof and Wudunn´s Political Solution to Sex Slavery

"There is a cultural aspect to girls trafficking and forced prostitution in developing countries that can be brought to an end with western political pressure. People get away with enslaving village girls for the same reason that people got away with enslaving blacks two hundred years ago: the victims are perceived as discounted humans."

Stoping Sex Trafficking with Political Pressure

In India, forced prostitution is tolerated, sometimes even considered acceptable, and thought of as “inevitable”, which allows the police to turn a blind eye against girls trafficking into brothels.

On the other hand, the Indian government does delegate intelligence officers to look for and confiscate pirated goods because they know the West cares about intellectual property.

"When India starts to feels that the West cares as much about sex slavery as it does about pirated DVDs, it will dispatch intelligence officers to the borders to stop trafficking."

Big-Stick Approach

Successful Results:

  • number of prostitutes ↓ (-41%)
  • prostitutes' demand ↓
  • price of sex ↓
  • business profit ↓
  • trafficking ↓
  • forced prostitution ↓
  • under-aged sex slaves ↓

"How to Change the World" Kristof and Wudunn´s Recommended Book For Social Entrepreneurs

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition
How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition


Book about social entrepreneurs and how it isasier today for new abolitionists to arise through social networks.


What to do against Sex Trafficking and Forced Prostitution?

The Netherlands and Sweden highlight the differences between the “big-stick approach” and the “legalize-and-regulate model”.

In 2000, the Netherlands formally legalized prostitution in the belief that it would then be easier to provide health and labor checks to prostitutes, and to keep minors and trafficking victims from taking up the trade.

In 1999, Sweden took a different approach by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, but not the sale of them by prostitutes; a man caught paying for sex is fined (in theory, he can be imprisoned for up to six months), while the prostitute is not punished. This reinforced the concept that the prostitute is more a victim than a criminal.

A decade later, Sweden´s approach seems to have been more successful in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years, and the price of sex dropped too, a pretty good indication that demand was declining and prostitution was turning into a less profitable venture for traffickers. This decline has made Sweden a less attractive destination for sex trafficking.

In the Netherlands, legalization has facilitated health checkups for women in the legal brothels, but there is no evidence that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or HIV has declined. Pimps in the Netherlands still offer under-aged girls, and trafficking and forced prostitution continue. At least initially, the number of illegal prostitutes increased, apparently because Amsterdam became a center for sex tourism. The Amsterdam City Council found the sex tourism and criminality so vexing that in 2003 it ended its experiment with “tolerance zones” for street prostitution, although it retained legal brothels.

The bottom line: customers can easily find an under aged Eastern European girl working as a prostitute in Amsterdam, but not in Stockholm.

Other European countries have concluded that Sweden´s experiment with the big-stick approach has been a success and are now moving toward that model.

In the developing world, however, this difficult polarizing debate is mostly just a distraction. In India, for example, brothels are technically illegal, but, as we said earlier, they are ubiquitous; the same is true in Cambodia. In poor countries, the law is often irrelevant, particularly outside the capital. The focus has to be on changing reality, not changing laws.

Sunitha Krishnan´s Fight Against Sex Slavery in India

Sunitha Krishnan calls herself an “anti-trafficking crusader” that has dedicated her life to rescue girls from sex slavery.

A victim of gang rape herself, she understands the victims of sex slavery and knows the problems they face once released, when they are ostracized, stigmatized, marginalized and isolated from society, preciselybecause they are victims; that is what society in India does to all traffic survivors, succeeding in victimizing the victims.

In the following video, Sunitha Krishnan speaks about these cultural issues and post-slavery problems, her personal story, and the story of other enslaved girls who were sexually abused and died of aids.

She makes a special call for individuals to change the way they behave towards sex slave victims, show some compassion, and begin helping them start a new life.

Inner Cultural Change to Stop Sex Trafficking & Forced Prostitution

The Big-Stick Approach against Sex Trafficking and Forced Prostitution for the Developing World

The big-stick approach should focus in particular on the sale of virgins. Such transactions account for a disproportionate share of traffickers’ profits and kidnappings of young teenagers. It is often rich Asians, particularly overseas Chinese, who are doing the buying; put a few of them in jail, and good things will happen:

  • the market for virgins will quickly shrink,
  • their price will drop,
  • gangs will shift to less risky or more profitable lines of business,
  • the average age of prostitutes will rise somewhat, and
  • the degree of compulsion in prostitution will diminish as well.

Kristof and Wudunn saw such a shift in Svay Pak, a Cambodian village that used to have a considerable sex slavery activity.

On Nick´s first visit, he saw seven and eight year old girls for sale in their brothels. Nick was taken for a prospective customer and was allowed to talk to a thirteen year old girl who had been sold to the brothel and was waiting in terror for the sale of her virginity.

But then, the State Department began putting out the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and severely criticized Cambodia. Media reports placed a spotlight on Cambodian girls’ slavery, and the International Justice Mission (a Christian-based organization that fights sex trafficking) opened an office there. Svay Pak became a symbol of sexual slavery, and the Cambodian government decided that the bribes paid by the brothel owners weren´t worth the hassle and international embarrassment. So the police cracked down.

What Can I Do?

People-2-People Aid Organizations

People-2-people aid groups are organizations that link you directly to a person in the developing world, two of them are:

  • Global Giving directly connects you with a grassroots aid project of your choice, it gives you many pre-screened possibilities from around the world to find a project you would like to donate to. It lets you know how it’s going through regular progress reports, enabling you to follow the impact of your donation over time.
  • Kiva focuses on empowering people around the world by microloans that change lives. It lets you chose an individual to which you want to lend money for entrepreneurial activity and a specific project they want to embark on to lift themselves out of poverty.

Working on Empowering Women Who Suffer Abuse

Quoting from Half the Sky:

Empowerment is a cliché in the aid community, but it is truly what is needed.

The first step towards greater justice is to transform the culture of female docility and subservience, so that women themselves become more assertive and demanding. That is, of course, easy for outsiders like us to say: we are not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it is imperative that outsiders champion her; we must nurture institutions to protect such people.

More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education. Ultimately, women need to join the human rights revolution themselves. They constitute part of the answer to the problem: there will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back”.

Aid Groups with Local Ownership that Work on Empowering Women

According to Kristof and Wudunn, aid group projects that have made a stunning difference are Tostan, Kashf, Grameen, the CARE project in Burundi, BRAC, the Self Employed Women´s Association in India, and Apne Aap.

The common denominator among these projects is that they are grassroots projects with local ownership, which are initiated by insiders who understand the social and cultural issues involved in women´s abuse. These projects tend to resemble social or religious movements much better than traditional, foreign aid groups; they are nonjudgmental and purely informative.

Grassroots projects share a better reality with abused women and abusers and focus on education. Often they have been propelled by exceptionally bright and driven social entrepreneurs who had encountered the “treetops” efforts and modified them to create far more effective bottom-up models. That is a crucial way forward for a new international movement focusing on women in the developing world.

Overview of Kiva´s Microloans Program: a Win-Win Deal

The Success Story of Somaly Mam that Drove Her to Start Her Foundation

The Road of Lost Innocence: The Story of a Cambodian Heroine (Random House Reader's Circle)
The Road of Lost Innocence: The Story of a Cambodian Heroine (Random House Reader's Circle)

Born in Cambodia, Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather when she was twelve years old. For ten years she suffered and witnessed unspeakable acts of brutality until she escaped. Unable to forget the girls she left behind, Mam became a leader in the fight against sex trafficking, rescuing victims to offer them shelter and rehab, and leading them into a new life.


NGOs Empowering Women

There are many NGOs and Aid Groups that fight to defend women rights and work to empower abused women, giving them the tools to change their lives, a list of them follows:

  • American Assistance for Cambodia is an aid group that helps girls who have been trafficked start new lives.
  • Apne Aap battles sex slavery in India, including remote areas that get little attention.
  • ECPAT is a network of groups fighting child prostitution, particularly in Southeast Asia.
  • Equality Now lobbies against the sex trade and gender oppression around the world.
  • Grameen Bank pioneered microfinance in Bangladesh and has now branched into an array of development programs.
  • International Justice Mission is a Christian-based organization that fights sex trafficking.
  • New Light is Umri Basu´s organization to help prostitutes and their children in Kolkata, India. It welcomes volunteers.
  • Self Employed Women´s Association is a huge union for poor, self-employed women in India. It accepts volunteers.
  • Shared Hope International fights sex trafficking around the world.
  • Somaly Mam Foundation led by a woman who as a child was trafficked herself, fights sex slavery in Cambodia.

If you are unsure of which charity to support, you can visit Charity Navigator, a web site that evaluates charities on their efficiency, to help you make the best choice.


Note from the Author

This article is one of the ways in which I intend to help abused women around the world, and make my contribution to fight for women´s rights, particularly in the area of sex trafficking.

Everything I´ve written is based on the book “Half the Sky” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. I have taken the information documented in their literary work to spread the word and create consciousness about the problem of sex slavery, so that more people can join the human rights revolution to turn oppression into opportunity for many women more.

I have quoted Kristof´s and Wudunn´s inspiring words and I give thanks, and most of the credit, to their fantastic work.

Comments on “Half the Sky: Exposing Sex Trafficking & Forced Prostitution”

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    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 4 years ago from Mexico

      RTalloni, thanks to you for all your input and support! It is hard not to write about Half the Sky and the way in which we can help women around the world to overcome the many forms of abuse they are subjected to once you´ve read the book.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thank you for highlighting the plight of women and girls around the world who are subjected to the degradation and terrors of such a life by the very people who should be caring for and protecting them. Half the Sky and the other books you have featured here are important works.

      It takes strength to seriously look at the problem and courage to write such an in depth article. Thank you again for standing up for both the victims and those who are working on their behalf through your writing.

      Pinned to my Leadership/Character/Heroes/Heroines board.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      nighthag, thanks for your interest and very nice, very pertinent comment; I completely agree with you, we need to care and know that there is something we can do about the terrible things that are happening in this world even when they are so unreal and far away from us. Sex trafficking and forced prostitution, as well as other human abuses, CAN be stopped little by little if we believe we can and do something about it, even if it does look like a tiny little grain of sand.

    • nighthag profile image

      K.A.E Grove 5 years ago from Australia

      A very well written and needed article, there is so much apathy in this world, and the minute that changes then so will many other things like this will have to change for the better


    • Jack Hansen profile image

      John A Hansen 5 years ago from Fort Myers, Florida

      Yes, Claudia, I agree. The Solution to many of our problems is raising awareness. I shall endeavor to make this a Cause of mine as well.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Thanks for sharing Jack! It is important to spread the news so we can get as much people as possible to help, in which ever way they can, stop sex trafficking and forced prostitution. Together we are stringer!

    • Jack Hansen profile image

      John A Hansen 5 years ago from Fort Myers, Florida

      Shared with my other social media friends.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Thank you Irka, I appreciate your interest and comment.

    • profile image

      irka winniczuk 5 years ago

      Very courageous article. Thank you

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Letitia, thanks so much for your input. I am flabbergasted by your abuse stories from the Western world. It is sometimes quite hard to believe that these things actually happen; they sound so violent and misogynistic that they even seem unreal. We must take responsibility for what we can and stand up for women who have been caught in such unfortunate circumstances, do something about it, and give each other a hand.

      I find the Half the Sky movement a great phenomenon because it lets us know there are people who care for one another and, as you said, have made it very easy for other people to join in liberating women from violence and abuse, through education and micro-loans. It is something we can do right now and make a whole lot of difference for a fellow human being, with very little effort and very little money.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      @mecheshier, I know, it is very sad to know humans are doing this to humans, how can these things be considered acceptable escapes my mind.... the good thing is that we CAN do something about it! Imagine if every one of us helped just a single women, rescue her, or even prevent such terrible things to happen to her through education. We now can sponsor change from afar and little by little make a huge difference. Thanks for your votes.

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 5 years ago from Paris via California

      I commend you on your poignant article and arguments. I'm dumbfounded by the figures, both on the number of girls killed every year, and on how easy it proved to be to squelch prostitution in Sweden. The problem is, not everyone wants to squelch abuse against women.

      In the US, where I'm from, rape in the military is so rampant that American women serving in Iraq were more likely to be raped by their American soldiers than killed by enemy fire. Yet they are bullied by adminstrators if they complain.

      Recently in France, where I live, even as the Strauss Kahn "incident" was still making headlines, another high-level civil servant who had served time for serious sexual harrassement, managed to have the only law against such crimes annuled on the basis it was "unconstitutional." All of the cases in progress were dumped, flat. Lawmakers are struggling to come up with something new, but that takes time, and in the meantime, harrassers are having a field day, if not taking revenge.

      Those two examples are from the Western world, where violence against women is on the rise. It's hard to fathom what it must be like in the countries you've described.

      Thanks for providing links to organizations that are doing something. All too often we turn our backs to horrors because we feel helpless. It is empowering even for women who are not abused to know they can help.

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 5 years ago

      Such a sad story it makes me cry. Thank you for sharing your insight. Voted up for useful.