‘Instead of forcing these young girls to do things, let them choose their own love. Let them be an engineer, or a doctor, or whatever they could be to make a bigger and greater impact.’
When Nasreen Sheikh speaks, there is a fire and passion to her words.
Continuing her thoughts, she adds: ‘But they’re stuck in the machine system where they can’t have good water, or good food to eat, or a voice, or even sign their name… People think modern day slavery was abolished long ago, but then you see these numbers and realise – no.’
The fact that Nasreen was one of these young girls makes it clear why she feels so strongly about the issue. Born in a village called Rajura on the border of India and Nepal, her birth was not documented so she doesn’t even know when her birthday is.
Watching her 12-year-old sister be forced into marriage, she knew she’d be next, so at the age of 10 Nasreen left her village in an attempt to find freedom. Her plan sadly didn’t work and instead she had her ‘childhood stolen’ after ending up at a sweat shop in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu, working up to 15 hours a day making garments to be sold in shops in the western world.
While this may have happened around 20 years ago for Nasreen, it is still the reality for millions across the world today, with around 70% of them thought to be women.
And according to the latest Global Slavery Index, some 50 million people globally are living in modern slavery – which is 10 million more compared with five years ago.
Around 122,000 people in the UK are estimated to be living in slavery at the moment.
‘It’s a basic human right to dream, to be human,’ Nasreen, now in her early 30s, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘And the fact that 50 million people cannot dream, it’s such a loss of opportunities, and such a loss to the world.
‘I feel like businesses do have opportunities – not a challenge – to really help people, and let them dream.’
Nasreen says she was given the opportunity to dream after a ‘kind guardian’ come to her aid and helped her get ID, and learn to read and write.
‘With the help of education, slowly I was able to understand that this was not okay,’ she says. ‘I do have a voice. I used the skills I learned in the sweat shop to turn into my business.’
At the age of around 16, Nasreen secured a loan to set up the first ever social business in Kathmandu, called Local Women’s Handicrafts.
‘Sometimes I say it’s not the age that makes you wiser, it’s the experience that makes you wiser,’ she smiles.
‘The idea was to really honour the artist and tell the story of how they made these products, where it come from, share their stories and who they are.’
Her company aims to fight oppression and break the cycle of poverty by demanding a living wage for women’s work, both locally and globally. Nasreen has helped more than 5,000 women since 2008, particularly with launching their own businesses.
‘Local women’s handicraft is advocating people through products and bringing ethical and sustainable fashion to the world,’ Nasreen adds.
The slavery report, which is produced by human rights group Walk Free every five years and is the world’s most comprehensive data set on modern slavery, reveals the 10 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the map below.
Walk Free not only wants to highlight the countries which need to work harder to eradicate slavery, but also remind those of us living in wealthier, more developed countries that we’re funding slavery through spurious supply chains.
The charity’s founding director, Grace Forrest, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Modern slavery permeates every aspect of our society. It is woven through our clothes, lights up our electronics, and seasons our food.
‘At its core, modern slavery is a manifestation of extreme inequality. It is a mirror held to power, reflecting who in any given society has it and who does not.
‘Nowhere is this paradox more present than in our global economy through transnational supply chains.’
Modern slavery is an umbrella term which encompasses several types of exploitation where people struggle to escape – including forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage.
The G20, made up of 19 of the largest economies in the world plus the European Union, accounts for more than half of all people living in modern slavery and imports $468 billion (£379 billion) of connected products annually.
The US was the biggest offender at $169.6 billion (£137 billion) of these imports – but the UK still imports $26.1 billion (£21 billion).
As well as highlighting the potential environmental impact of fast fashion, Nasreen adds: ‘This is not a small of money and that money is coming from the most vulnerable people.
‘It’s such a deep thing to think about, and people really need to acknowledge how they’re contributing to slavery.
‘People have forgotten how slavery is so close to their clothes now. It’s food, electronics, coffees, gold, diamonds and textiles, all of that.
‘People need to ask questions – where my clothes come from, where my things come from – and if you have money, support local artists, local businesses, fair trade products that give transparency to the supply chain.
‘People think what could I do, I am nothing, but you are something and if you consume mindlessly it will have a ripple effect on girls like me in these rural villages.’
Mahendra Pandey, from the Palpa district in Nepal, dutifully followed the footsteps of his father and family before him by moving to Saudi Arabia for work in 2006.
He experienced first-hand the terrible working conditions many migrant workers face, which he says led to ‘suffering and pain’.
‘Once you arrive in the country, you leave your passport with your employer, and you cannot leave, or change your job, without asking them,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘You have to do whatever work they ask you to do, regardless of whether you went to be a salesman or construction worker – whatever they tell you to do, they have to do it. Everything’s controlled by them.
‘At that time, I didn’t have the understanding – I just thought that is part of our job and we have to do it.
‘[But later] I realised that whatever the experience and the struggle I faced was totally wrong.’
Mahendra, now in his mid-30s, went on to launch the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee to support migrant workers as well as fight for rights and reform.
It provides emergency support, such as shelter and food at first, and later helps with education and awareness, and mental health treatment for those who have experienced trauma as part of their ordeal.
Mahendra, who now works for philanthropic organisation Humanity United in Washington DC, says governments need to ‘provide more access and opportunity to the migrant workers not only to share their story, but also let them be part of decision making’.
‘If we are able to speak ourselves, why are they speaking on behalf of us?’ he asks. ‘Migrant workers need to tell their story their own way, in their own language. And that’s what we have been encouraging.’
He adds the ‘data and evidence’ in the slavery report is the ‘urgent call that governments should act immediately’.
‘If they delay even one day, it means they are also contributing to the deaths of migrant workers,’ Mahendra explains.
‘When I was in Saudi, I hated my the life I had, but now I feel so fortunate that I can tell my story and talk with other migrant workers to tell them about what I am doing. That’s why I would like to continue raising my voice.’
Also fighting against slavery on a larger scale, Nasreen launched the Empowerment Collective five years ago – a non-profit organisation dedicated to working with marginalised women in India and Nepal.
The collective offers several programmes dedicated to skills training – which could last between six months and four years – and health education, teaching women about reproductive health and basic human rights.
‘I feel like we are healing each other,’ Nasreen says. ‘We have created a community where we talk about these issues.
‘A lot of the teachers that we have in the centre are women who have already been through the training and they have learned things and they have survived and found themselves. And so these women are becoming mentors for the new women who are coming to the centre.’
She notes one of the huge changes she’s witnessed is the power given to women in Nepal and India through earning a living wage. They can now afford to send their children to school, get them an education and break the cycle.
‘I know I have dedicated my life to really eradicate this, and I’m going to continue my work to protect as many people I can, and not let them go through what I went through,’ Nasreen says.
Sadly, the fight is far from over, with the report suggesting that climate change has exacerbated modern slavery, as extreme weather events displace communities and forces them to migrate. Sectors which have a huge impact on the environment – including mining and textile manufacture – are more likely to use forced labour.
Grace from Walk Free calls for greater ‘political will’ from governments across the world to eradicate slavery – with the UK, Australia and the Netherlands noted as taking the most action in the past five years.
However, the charity says action has stagnated, with no government currently on track to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal of ending modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking by 2030.
‘Future is in the hands of our collective action – government, businesses, consumers – we all need to unite to protect our one planet and humankind,’ adds Nasreen.
‘We need to get rid of our stigmas, and we really need to see what power is. It can make us blind, disconnect us and make us greedy, and people are seeing that more and more. We need to see the impact of money much more closely.’
Five key actions governments must take to eradicate modern slavery
- Implement stronger measures to combat forced labour in public and private supply chains by introducing legislation to stop governments and businesses from sourcing goods or services linked to modern slavery
- Embed anti-slavery measures in humanitarian and crisis responses, and ensure that human rights are embedded in efforts to build a green economy
- Prioritise human rights when engaging with repressive regimes, by conducting due diligence to ensure that any trade, business, or investment is not contributing to or benefiting from state-imposed forced labour
- Focus on prevention and protection for vulnerable populations by providing primary and secondary education for all children, including girls
- Ensure effective civil and criminal protections in legislation to tackle forced and child marriage, including raising the age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys, with no exceptions
Information provided by Walk Free
READ MORE: Politician and wife jailed for total of 14 years over organ harvesting plot
READ MORE: Trio convicted of modern slavery after woman forced to give up newborn baby
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