If slavery makes you think of the 18th and 19th centuries, think again.
Think the 21st Century. Think today.
An estimated 27 million people live in slavery today. That’s more than twice the number of men and women taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, more people live – and too often die – in bondage today than at any other time in history.
The stricken face of slavery today is more than the traditional slave laborer of centuries past, though it is that, too. The many modern faces of slavery can be seen in the woman sold into sexual bondage, the child forced to become a soldier, or the migrant leashed to the debt he owes his smuggler.
The Catholic Church is working to stop it.
On April 7, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations co-sponsored a landmark summit on the issue of ending human slavery in our lifetimes. It featured senior Church leaders alongside key players in international development and diplomacy. Co-sponsoring the event was the “Santa Marta Group”, an organization that Pope Francis founded to abolish human trafficking.
From the start, Pope Francis has made human slavery – this “plague on the body of contemporary humanity” – a priority in his papacy.
In April 2015, he convened a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences for the sole purpose of finding ways to use the Church’s influence to combat human slavery. He has taken the topic head-on in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
He dedicated his entire speech for the 2015 World Day of Peace to the issue, and it was a central theme of his address to the United Nations in New York City last fall. Beyond all this, Pope Francis has made combating human slavery a top diplomatic priority for the Holy See.
As a result, the Holy See played a critical role in lobbying behind closed doors at the UN to have the eradication of human slavery added to the Sustainable Development Goals. These are the international body’s top priorities for the next fifteen years, an expansion on the millennium goals laid out at the dawn of the new millennium.
Once again, think 21st Century.
Thanks to Pope Francis and the Holy See, Target 8.7 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals reads: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.”
Yes, I know, it’s easy to brush off the United Nations on this issue.
How can an institution that has caved to ideologues and embraced the “sex worker” be effective in combating the human trafficking movement? How, for that matter, can an institution that has been embroiled in its own child abuse and prostitution scandals be a credible voice for the enslaved?
But here’s the thing: The U.N.’s Millennium Goals actually worked. Making a goal and sticking to it – a universally effective strategy – proved successful in this arena.
After the program’s deadlines were reached in 2015, the final progress report on the goals called it “the most effective anti-poverty movement in history” in developing countries.
More specifically, the concerted work of those tasked with achieving the millennium goals led to a 50 percent cut in the number of people living in extreme poverty, increases in the elementary school enrollment rate to above 90 percent, astonishing reductions in under-five and maternal mortality rates, and dramatic successes in expanding access to clean water and in fighting disease like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.
If the 2015 sustainable development goals are as successful, the effect on human trafficking could impact millions upon millions of people, most of them girls and women. It will also significantly undercut movements within the United Nations and allied NGOs like Amnesty International to cast prostitution as something empowering to women and deserving of legal approval.
The Church’s driving role in fighting human slavery is wholly consistent with Pope Francis’ emphasis on reaching out to the margins of society, to seeking out and helping the “least of these” trapped in the darkness of injustice and oppression.
The Church has always been at the forefront of the most important social justice fights of the day. Thanks to its efforts on human slavery, there is reason for hope that many millions will be brought out of the darkness and experience, as President Abraham Lincoln said back in the 19th Century, “a new birth of freedom.”
Ashley McGuire is a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association.