Sex Trafficking

The global sex trade claims the lives of millions

Forced prostitution preys on the voiceless and marginalized, constituting a global crime that goes largely unnoticed. At any given moment, an estimated 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking. Nearly half are being used for commercial sex.

Shoma, a young woman living in the red light district of Kalighat, in the Indian city of Kolkata, was 13 years old when the man she had married sold her to a brothel shortly after their wedding.

“In the beginning I would tremble and stand there and cry. I was abused and beaten up. They used to tie up my hands in the back and tie up my legs and beat me with a belt,” she recalled of her time as a victim of India’s sex trade.

“There was no possibility of escape.”


Two girls do schoolwork at the New Light Center in Khaligat, India

Photo by Joshua Bennett

India’s brothels are among the world’s most brutal, according to journalist Nicholas Kristof, who says women and girls who are uncooperative, who remain defiant in the face of daily beatings and gang rapes, are sometimes killed.

Women like Shoma are “disposable,” and “that is one reason why you get this extraordinary violence directed against girls like [her],” Kristof says.

Listening to Shoma’s story is like listening to a collective tale of brutality and victimization, says Urmi Basu, an activist against sex trafficking and forced prostitution who has encountered hundreds of Shomas in her work in Indian brothels.

The stories are different, the lives and locations are different, she says, but the underlying theme of violence and fear is the same anywhere in the world where humans are bought and sold as chattel and forced to perform degrading acts for the profit of others, from the North American flesh trade to the brothel in a far-flung corner of Cambodia.

“There’re a lot of countries that have serious sex trafficking problems, but Cambodia is one where girls are additionally likely to be not only raped, but in some cases even killed. They are truly disposable,” says Kristof.

“One reason why trafficking has been ignored is that the victims are voiceless.”

At any given time, an estimated 2.4 million people around the world are the victims of human trafficking, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some of the facts of this practice, according to the International Labour Organizations, are:

  • 161 countries are reported to be affected by human trafficking by being a source, transit or destination country.
  • People are reported to be trafficked from 127 countries to be exploited in 137 countries, affecting every continent and every type of economy.
  • The majority of trafficking victims are between 18 and 24 years of age.
  • An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year.
  • 43 percent of victims are used for forced commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 98 percent are women and girls.

Sex trafficking is one of the most “pernicious forms of gender abuse today,” says Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and one that plagues both developed and developing countries.

“We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that terrible abuses happen only on the other side of the world. … In truth, the abuses tend to be worse in Asia, but they certainly happen in America as well.”

— Nicholas Kristof, in a 2010 New York Times column on trafficking

“We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that terrible abuses happen only on the other side of the world. Americans sometimes are willing to accept that girls are enslaved in Delhi, but can’t imagine that it happens in New York. In truth, the abuses tend to be worse in Asia, but they certainly happen in America as well,” Kristof wrote in a May 1, 2010, column on trafficking in The New York Times.

“I don’t think that, that the average person in this country recognizes how disenfranchised women are in many parts of the world, how little they have and how excluded girls and women are in many societies,” says Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of the humanitarian organization CARE.

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is not in any way affiliated with or in partnership with the Half the Sky Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1998 to enrich the lives and enhance the prospects for orphaned children in China. For more information about the Half the Sky Foundation, visit