Opinion09 Oct 2020

For every 130 girls or women on the planet, one is a modern slave

“What we see, we understand. What we see more, we understand more.” This quote, from renowned Vietnam War photojournalist Phillip Jones Griffiths, sums up what has driven my work for the past 10 years.


For most Australians, modern slavery is a foreign concept. Many would assume they’ve never seen it – and if they have, they haven’t recognised it. But slavery is all around us, in the clothes we wear, the toys we buy our children, the food we eat, it has even been discovered in some of our protected institutions.

I first encountered the crime of modern slavery at a young age and couldn’t look away. This discovery set me on the path to establish Walk Free in 2011 – an international human rights organisation focused on ending modern slavery in our lifetime.

Over the years, we have built an expert team working across five continents, to produce the world’s leading dataset measuring the prevalence of modern slavery. We provide guidance to business, government and religious leaders around the world, and advocate for international legislation to eradicate supply-chain risk and harmful practices such as forced and child marriage. We work closely with survivors and organisations on the frontline.

Four years ago I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, assessing the increased vulnerability that refugee communities face to modern slavery and exploitation, in the context of distressed migration. I interviewed Syrian refugees about their experience of fleeing their homes, crossing the border in a war zone and adjusting to their new life in a refugee camp.

What I was expecting to document were stories of extreme hardship, of great loss and uncertainty and displacement. What I did not expect was the further injustices they were facing, purely because of their gender. Agree to your daughter marrying a stranger or have her navigate the risk of rape every day? One predator, or multiple? This was the impossible decision facing a mother in the camp who explained she did not want to force her daughter to marry, but in this setting, it was the best worst option.

In these camps there is no physical safety: no doors, no locks. Every day is a constant risk assessment between survival and sexual violence.

I know that travelling to witness the stories of mothers and daughters across the world is a privilege. By sharing their experiences, we seek to change the odds that are so heavily stacked against women and girls.

This week, alongside the United Nations’ Every Woman Every Child and 40 international human rights groups and survivor organisations, Walk Free is launching our latest report, Stacked Odds, the most comprehensive evaluation of the female experience of modern slavery and exploitation to date. It reveals almost 29 million women and girls are victims of modern slavery.

The report reveals one in every 130 women and girls around the world is living in modern slavery. It demonstrates that gender is stacking the odds before girls are born. Girls and women are at higher risk of slavery and exploitation at every stage of their lives.

As horrifying as the statistics are, each of them represents an individual’s story – a girl who has been robbed of her most basic human right. This Sunday – International Day Of the Girl – is a good time to confront that thought.

There can be no gender equality while millions of women and girls are systemically held back. There are more women and girls living in slavery today than there are people in Australia. And, although shocking, these numbers are conservative. They can’t yet take into account the ramifications of COVID-19, which we know is driving even greater risk of forced marriage and modern slavery for women and girls around the world.

Exploitation at this scale is facilitated through global supply chains: the clothes we wear and products we buy and use every day. It is not the consumers’ fault vulnerable people are being exploited, but it is our responsibility to show businesses we care about this. We must demand transparency and accountability. We vote for the kind of world we want to live in with the way we spend our money.

We can no longer say we can’t see or understand this problem. Businesses, government and consumers must all acknowledge this ongoing human rights crisis and take action to unstack the odds for women and girls.

This article was published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 9th October 2020.