In September 2003, less than a week before leaving for Antwerp to research a novel, I heard a story on NPR which reported statistics on human trafficking that were so staggering that I pulled off the road to listen to the radio.
Upwards to 26 million enslaved people worldwide (some estimates are higher), the majority being young women forced to work in the sex trade. 750,000 people trafficked across borders annually and another 750,000 people trafficked within their own countries. An estimated 55,000 enslaved people in the United States alone.
That’s when I became aware of human trafficking, and since this is Human Trafficking Awareness Week, I’ve decided to write about its role in “Cooper’s Promise”.
I use fiction to illuminate issues that concern me, and I was headed to Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world, because I wanted to write about the role of blood diamonds in Africa’s grisly civil wars. With Antwerp’s large port and flourishing sex trade, it was easy enough to learn something about human trafficking as well, and in fact, eventually I met with rescued women in a safe house.
Ultimately I decided not to set my novel in Antwerp, but to go back to a source of both problems: Africa. Cooper survives by trading diamonds stolen by children from the mines, not realizing the gruesome consequences. He befriends a young prostitute, Lulay, not realizing she’s been trafficked. Everything is told through Cooper’s eyes, and as his awareness grows, so does the reader’s.
I continued to research trafficking, at one point meeting with the director the Israeli NGO working to stop trafficking in that country. One of the hardest tasks in any country where prostitution is legal is to convince the authorities or the public that many of the women are not in that trade by choice. On Wednesday, I will post an archived video from Israeli TV where police are forced to use sledgehammers to liberate women from their cells within a brothel. That’s not what I would call voluntary confinement.
“Cooper’s Promise” fictionalizes a story that is, sadly, a true story for young women and men all over the world. Tomorrow, I’ll post excerpts from the novel about Lulay.
photo by Michael Honegger www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com