The Shape of Injustice

By Brad Miller

What do you think of when you hear the word “trafficking”? It’s an issue that’s getting more and more attention. We hear it on the news, read about it in the paper, and a growing number of organizations are dedicated to “fighting trafficking.”

But what is it, exactly?

I was shocked to learn that sex trafficking isn’t really one thing – it’s three. Three injustices intersecting to form a horrific global tragedy. And it turned out that what I’d learned in movies and pop culture was nowhere near the reality experienced by millions.


I’d always learned that slavery was something from the past. But in fact, there are more slaves now than there have ever been – even at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.

Traditional methods of imprisonment and punishment join newer methods like debt slavery. Debt slavery is charging someone a fee to start a job and never paying them enough pay it off. If they try and leave they risk arrest or physical harm.


In popular media, prostitution is often portrayed as a simple business action; a “john” paying a prostitute for sexual services. In this model, the prostitute has a degree of control over who the customer is, how much she charges, and what services are offered.

However, this is rarely the case. Even where prostitution is legal, this appears to be the rarest of exceptions. In reality, a john pays a pimp or madam, and in return they rent out a prostitute for a period of time.

There are two critical differences in this model. First, the prostitute has no control over her situation – how long she works, what she earns, or what she offers.

But the most important difference is that the transaction has changed from being a service bought to a product rented. The prostitute has become a product. And once the prostitute believes she is a product, physical rescue won’t save her – she needs her mind and spirit released as well.


In simplest terms, trafficking (or human trafficking) is simply moving people over national borders illegally.

In its more benign form, this includes illegal immigration or helping someone to flee economic or political danger without going through official channels.

Sadly, this form is only the smallest fraction of actual trafficking. It is estimated that over 90% of human trafficking is for the purposes of sexual or labor slavery.

Sex Slavery

Despite movies like “Taken,” domestic sex slavery is far more common than the dramatic kidnap-and-transport-over-borders scenario. By the numbers, there are far more victims of domestic sex slavery than international sex trafficking.

Oftentimes, victims are lured with promises of work in a distant city. Many seemingly legitimate jobs turn out to be entirely different once the victims arrive. Rape, drugs, and torture are used to ensure they cooperate.

Labor Trafficking

For poor workers, often from rural areas, the promise of a factory job or life in the city seems too good to be true. The powerlessness of being unable to help their family, and the constant danger of a failed crop or unexpected sickness make a job recruiter’s offer nearly irresistible.

The offer will always involve moving to a foreign country – often one where they can’t speak the language or ask for help. Once there, they may discover that their contract puts them in debt or compels them to servitude. Other times, it’s less subtle and victims are simply stripped of valuables and told to get to work.

Sex Trafficking

When prostitution, slavery, and trafficking intersect the result is sex trafficking.

With promises of work, or in exchange for money to provide for their families, victims are transported across borders into a country where they cannot easily go for help or escape to safety.

Once there, they are forced to provide sexual services for little or no pay with the threat of abuse, imprisonment or death should they disobey or try to escape.

How does CGI fit?

The way trafficking and sex slavery plays out in Cambodia is through impoverished families. There’s a formula that works well to explain this:

Poverty + Disaster = Risk

For impoverished families, even the smallest accident can spell disaster. Illness can bring unaffordable health bills and loss of income. Too much rain can flood and wash away a house. Too little rain can destroy a crop and year’s worth of income.

In a desperate situation, there are few options. Without savings to draw on or possessions to sell, some families will turn to the only remaining resource: their children. A child can be rented to a brothel for a night, a week, or months. After which they return to their home and their families, but never to their former life. The physical and psychological damage has been done.

As dark as it is, this practice of renting children has gone on in many impoverished communities for generations. It is now considered an accepted norm and a necessary, if unpleasant, reality.

But addressing poverty can change this reality. The equation can be broken. If poverty is absent, then disaster no longer results in desperation. Education and economic empowerment hold the greatest promise of destroying poverty and ending the evils that follow it. And that’s exactly what the Center for Global Impact is doing.