Siddhartha Kara, a first-generation Indian American, first encountered the horrors of sexual slavery as a U.S. college student volunteering in a Bosnian refugee camp in 1995. Years later, unable to forget what he saw, he turned his back on a lucrative banking job to travel the world to investigate the world of sex slavery.
In 11 countries -- from India to Thailand, Albania to Moldova -- Kara interviewed slaves, brothel owners, traffickers, and customers to find out what economic forces keep the industry thriving and how it can be stopped. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to Kara about his riveting new book, "Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery."
RFE/RL: Your background story is rather unusual. You weren't a human rights worker or activist when you started investigating the global sex slave industry; you were getting your business degree at a prestigious university. How did you become interested in this tragic and criminal business?
Siddhartha Kara: I was an undergraduate at Duke University and I actually put together a project to volunteer in Bosnian refugee camps. This was the summer of 1995 and I was in a refugee camp filled with Bosnian refugees, and I heard a lot of terrible stories, as you can imagine. But one story I heard several times was, Serbian soldiers who would come into villages, execute the men, and round up the young women and girls and traffic them across Central Europe to brothels.
It wasn't until years later that these stories resurfaced in my mind. I was at Columbia [University] Business School and it was the summer in between my two years, and I sort of looked at the future and thought, do I want to return to corporate life or is there some better way for me to apply my background and skills? And that's when I decided this story needed to be told. And I started several research trips that summer to investigate exactly how these sex trafficking crimes were functioning around the world.
RFE/RL: In your book, what struck me is how difficult it was for you to uncover the stories of these women and girls. Not only the logistics -- you spent months trying to arrange meetings with traffickers and brothel owners -- but also the emotional toll of seeing first hand what the life of a sex slave is really like, in all its brutality.
Kara: Tracking down slavery can be very difficult. Most of the interviews I conducted with current or previous slaves were either in shelters that assist victims of trafficking and slavery, or in establishments that were currently exploiting these individuals as slaves.
Now those interviews in the establishments were very hit or miss. I would go into these establishments, track them down, try and find someone who might be able to speak English, and then of course you have to purchase a person in order to get some time with them which is always a very awkward and difficult situation to be in, but most often, [the slaves] were not willing to speak.
I was always honest about who I was and why I was there. But there was considerable distrust, as you can imagine. Often times slave owners will devise ways to test the loyalty of their slaves by sending in a false human rights worker who promises freedom for information and if the slave talks, they would be severely punished.
RFE/RL: What about once the women and girls were safe? Would they talk to you if they were in a shelter?
Kara: In shelters, the conditions were more favorable. I was able to sit down with individuals and talk to them about their experiences. I approached these encounters just as casual conversations; I didn't have a list of questions I wanted to ask.
Many times individuals simply don't want to talk about what they've been through; there's a lot of shame involved, there's a lot of pain in reliving those memories, and there's also fear of information leaking out that could lead to a trafficker being able to track them down, if they are escapees, or a trafficker or slave owner taking out vengeance against their family members, which is a common threat against slaves to keep them from ever trying to escape.
Many times they really just poured their hearts out and were grateful to speak, grateful for the opportunity that their stories might be heard.
Having said that, I was able to have a lot of conversations with slaves in shelters. Many times they really just poured their hearts out and were grateful to speak, grateful for the opportunity that their stories might be heard.
RFE/RL: You approached this underground world as an economist and a sociologist. What did you find out about how women and girls end up as sex slaves?
Kara: In the book I analyze the anatomy of the crime of sex trafficking and I identify three steps: acquisition -- acquiring the slave; transportation or movement; and then exploitation. Acquisition, in my experience, occurs in one of five ways: deceit -- the false job offer, or false marriage offer; sale by a family member; abduction; seduction or romance; and then actually recruitment by former slaves.
RFE/RL: Is there one slave's story in particular that you remember?
Kara: You know there are so many young women and children who I met. I can see the faces of all of them, in my mind.
One young woman in particular who I call Ines -- I don't use anyone's real name -- I met at a shelter in the town of Vlore, in Albania. And she had suffered from the years of 1995 to 2003 -- as a teenager and into her 20s -- a shocking tale of abuse and exploitation and re-trafficking.
She had been abducted; she had been exploited and brotheled across Europe. She showed me a gash on her head, she showed me [where her] teeth had been pulled out as punishment for trying to escape. When she did escape and make it back to Albania, her family shunned her and she was on the street, she was re-trafficked, she ultimately got pregnant, had to go through an abortion, she got pregnant again, and finally in the end after eight years made it to a shelter in the Netherlands, operated by nuns. And she was able to make it back to this shelter in Albania, but the shelter was running out of money, and they were contemplating having to close down just a few weeks after I was there. And that would put her back on the street, where she might end up being trafficked again.
So stories like this, for this young woman named Ines and so many others like her, portray a really bleak fate for so many young women and children, and the paucity of a more effective response from the global community.
RFE/RL: In your book you compare the vast amounts of money spent on fighting drug trafficking with the comparatively tiny amount spent to fight human trafficking. You write that in the few countries where laws do exist against brothels, the police are either complicit or the punishment is only a small fine. Why is there a reluctance to treat this form of human slavery as a major crime?
Kara: In my experience, there are four key impediments to a more effective response to global sex trafficking. The first is the practice itself remains poorly understood. The second is the organizations that are dedicated to fighting sex trafficking or assisting the victims are overwhelmingly underfunded and uncoordinated internationally. The third is that the laws against sex trafficking are very weak and not well enforced. And finally, the fourth impediment is that no one's really sat down and done a rigorous business and economic analysis of how these crimes function.
RFE/RL: You met many slaves who had been passed from trafficker to trafficker, sometimes as many as a half-dozen times, to as many countries. They were locked up, starved, tortured, and continuously raped. Some only escaped by breaking a window and throwing themselves out. Why don't governments consider this hideous business at least as bad as the trade in heroin or cocaine?
Kara: There is a very strong human rights response to these crimes in the global community at present. As you can imagine these are grotesque violations. I consider this form of slavery, like any other form of slavery, a crime against humanity. So there is a human rights appreciation and response to these crimes. But there hasn't really been a sophisticated economic understanding of -- how did these crimes suddenly accrete so considerably in the last 15 to 20 years? And why are they so popular among criminals?
And the key thesis to understand is that the enormity and pervasiveness of the global sex trafficking industry is fundamentally driven by its ability to generate immense profit at almost no real risk.
RFE/RL: One of the things you discovered in your research in these countries is that where laws do exist, the police don't enforce them and are often even part of the operation.
Kara: Well, corruption in law enforcement, border patrol, and the judiciary are fundamental problems, particularly in developing countries, to a more effective response to these crimes. That corruption, along with other factors, is why there's almost no real risk associated with the exploitation of sex slaves.
RFE/RL: You write that the price of buying a slave for 30 minutes, or even an hour, is so cheap that even the poorest workers can afford it, and if the price were to go up, the number of customers -- in other words, demand -- would drop dramatically. Is it really that simple?
Kara: One of the most important points I try to make [in the book] is that I believe the most effective measures in the short term to eradicate the global sex trafficking industry are those that reduce aggregate demand for slaves among slave owners and consumers.
Sex trafficking is like any other business: it has a supply side and it has a demand side. Briefly, the supply side is driven by immense factors related to poverty, military conflict, social instability, lawlessness, and more proximate drivers related to bias against gender and ethnicity. These are immense issues and the global community is tackling them. But we need to do a better job.
I was nonetheless deeply shocked and disheartened at the magnitude of unpunished violence that was committed against women.
I'm looking instead at the demand side of this industry, for a short-term attack. I've done some analysis and roughly, it takes about -- depending on which country you're in -- 1 1/2 to 2, maybe 2 1/2 hours of work to purchase one hour of commercial sex from a slave.
In every country I went to I received testimony after testimony that there are more and more consumers of commercial sex as the price has gone down. And the price for commercial sex has gone down because of the use of slaves, slave labor. So, if you can elevate the risk in the system, if you can elevate the cost to operate a sex slave business, you can affect an upward shock in, hopefully, the retail price, which will price out consumers, or reduce consumer demand.
RFE/RL: In the book you say that almost everywhere you went, you were stunned at the unequal treatment of woman and girls compared to boys and men -- from education to basic human rights. What were some examples?
Kara: I consider myself a relatively aware and well-educated person, and we do know that there are asymmetries around the world in access to education and employment and justice for women versus men. But I was nonetheless deeply shocked and disheartened at the magnitude of unpunished violence that was committed against women.
Everywhere I went, rural villages in Moldova, in Nepal, in Albania, women were abused and violated to shocking degrees. And time and again they told me, one of the things that drove them to end up being trafficked and exploited was the attempt to flee from this abuse. So they fled from one form of abuse into an even greater form of abuse.
There are two quotes I'll never forget. A young woman in Moldova in the town of Balti, in the north, told me that... we were talking about domestic violence and how there's actually no law in Moldova against domestic violence, there's just a small article that stipulates a $20 fine for the man. And she said, "You know, when a man beats a woman in America you call the police. Here we call it tradition."
There's one other quote I'll never forget. I was talking to another group of women in the Sindhupalchok region of Nepal, and I was trying to ask them, why do you think men treat you this way? And one woman, without hesitating, said, "Men want women as slaves."
And I'll never forget that, because that fundamental truth, it seemed, is what is such an important driver of this massive billion-dollar industry predicated on treating women as slaves.
RFE/RL: How do you convince governments to pass and enforce strong laws against the trafficking of women and girls?
Kara: I think the first most crucial point is these practices are fundamental human rights violations. They are morally unacceptable. And those truths, in and of themselves, should be sufficient to motivate countries, international organizations, and communities to do more to eradicate these crimes.
Now there are immense barriers erected against those who would do so, relating to corruption, a lack of international coordination and cooperation, a lack of funding, a lack of focus on these types of crimes, and very weak, unenforced laws.
What I try to call for in the book is a new brand of global abolitionist movement that will seek to gather sufficient resources and outcry and attention on this issue, and initiate more tactical and effective measures to eradicate the crimes in the short term, which I think can be accomplished with an attack on demand.
RFE/RL: How did you feel when you finished the book? Did your very logical analysis of what drives the industry give you hope that it can be wiped out?
Kara: You know, it really depends on the day. There are days when I feel relatively hopeless. There were days during the research that I just felt too overwhelmed by all the stories of despair and abuse and savagery that I was hearing, and I talk about some of those moments in the book.
But I remain fundamentally optimistic that with more awareness of these crimes, and a more detailed and effective understanding of how they function as a business, we can put together a more effective response as a global community.
This current civilization is [at] a very crucial moment. We have to decide as a planet -- will we allow slavery to remain a stain on humankind? And I think if enough people know and hear these stories from people who are suffering these crimes, and the global community hears the outcry of its citizens, it won't take much. And that's why I'm optimistic -- it won't take much to eradicate these crimes.