James E. Copple
The underlying foundation of human trafficking is that individuals can be viewed and used as commodities that can be traded in exchange for certain services. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, in its various authorizations, has defined human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to transport persons across international borders or within countries to exploit them for labor or sex. In subsequent authorizations, Congress extended the definition to any person under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act is considered a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion was present. Policymakers have gone to great lengths to distinguish between consensual sex and coerced sex. To be sure – anchoring our policy decisions in coercion makes it easier to achieve successful prosecutions.
Critical to these definitions and the societal response to define or delineate human trafficking as a crime is the assumption that the individual being trafficked is indeed coerced or compelled to perform a service (sex or labor) against their will. If we are to truly address the issues and the cultural artifacts of human trafficking we need to continue to peel back the layers of interpretation. The world is reacting to the horrors of human trafficking and the numbers are staggering if not statistically significant given crime and disease prevalence rates. However, there is a complicity in most cultures that contribute to the notion that individuals can be used as a commodity that can be exchanged for a service.
Without minimizing the horror of current practices in global human trafficking, there still remain cultural artifacts that treat women as property or objects.
In Kenya, bride-wage is still an acceptable practice and one that goes on within the context of the church and religious communities. Bride-wage is about the exchange of cattle, goats and land to acquire permission to marry a young woman. A groom spends months, sometimes years, putting together the resources to purchase cattle, goats and land to satisfy the parents of the bride and to give some consolation that if the groom dies or leaves his wife, that there are resources to support her and any children from the union. Essentially, the bride is purchased and the bride-wage is an insurance policy.
In the United States, we have a long history of the dowry. Resources are provided to secure the exchange of the bride – somebody profits. Carrying this even further, perhaps the cultural practice of requesting from the father of the bride the “hand” of a woman in marriage is about a transactional practice that she is “given” away in marriage. To be sure, I participated in rituals of my two biological daughters, where, the minister asked – “who gives this bride away?” It is in form if not substance a rite that reinforces the notion that women are subject to some kind of transaction where they are the objects being traded or given away.
As “cute” and “sentimental” as these practices have become, perhaps a first step in our sensitivity about women as property and objects is to ask ourselves – do we really want to reinforce in our world that women are objects to be purchased through bride-wage, dowries, and giving the bride away.
The systemic injustices and our involvement in the systems that continue to treat women as objects are legion. It may be a company discriminating against women in wages; access to services; equal access to jobs; or magazines that exploit and treat women as objects, and the list goes on – it is all transactional and exploitive. These are difficult things to change, but there are some things that are simple and we can do simple things – refuse to participate in bride-wage, stop giving our daughters away, and by all means forgo the dowry.
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