LONDON (TrustLaw) - Minh Dang has spent two thirds of her life as a domestic and sexual slave. When she was 10 she was put to work in brothels. Her captors threatened to kill her if she spoke out.
But Dang was not the victim of international traffickers. Her pimps were her parents.
Nor did she grow up in a slum in the developing world. Her family ran a business in San Jose, California.
Dang, now a campaigner against trafficking and slavery, believes there are hundreds of thousands of girls in the United States at risk of similar exploitation.
“I’ve only lived 30 percent of my life in freedom … Here today, I’m still shaking because my traffickers threatened my life if I spoke about my story,” she told the Trust Women Conference in London on Wednesday.
“My traffickers were not strangers. They were my family. Families are a huge component of slavery. They are pimps, they are the enslavers. And in the United States that’s not something that people talk a lot about.”
Around the world nearly 19 million people are estimated to be living in slavery, according to the International Labour Organization. Around 11.4 million are women and girls.
The conference heard that slavery takes many forms – sexual slavery, domestic servitude, bonded labour and forced marriage, to name a few.
Benjamin Skinner, author of ‘A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery,’ said more people are living in slavery today than ever before.
But he told the conference that the amount of money the United States spends on tackling human trafficking each year is less than it spends in fighting drug trafficking in a single day.
Dang said it was wrong to see slavery as something which only happens in the developing world and is entirely rooted in poverty. The United States is so focused on fighting trafficking abroad that it is failing to recognise and tackle the problem in its own backyard, she said.
She also called for U.S. government departments involved in combating trafficking and slavery to work more closely with former victims.
She said she did not prosecute her parents, partly because once she had escaped she needed to focus on healing herself. Far more attention needs to be given to aftercare for people rescued from slavery because someone who has known little but enslavement does not know how to live with freedom, she said.
CONTRACT WITH PARENTS
Now a PhD student at University College Berkeley, Dang told TrustLaw she was neglected from birth, sexually abused by her father from the age of three - with her mother’s knowledge - and regularly beaten.
At eight, her parents made her write a contract.
“It said: I will give you a third of my income for the rest of my life. It said I would buy them a house and never put them in a nursing home and I would become a doctor. They kept it with my social security card and birth certificate,” she said, speaking on the sidelines of the conference.
If her grade at school dipped to a “B”, the contract would be brought out and shown to her.
Dang said she was also kept in domestic servitude – cleaning the house, doing the laundry and working in her mother’s nail salon for no money.
From the age of 10 to 20 she was made to work in brothels and strip clubs. Her mother even put her photo in newspapers and magazines, she said. Her parents took everything she earned.
“They knew enough to say, ‘Keep your mouth shut or we will kill you,’” Dang said, adding that her brother was paid hush money to say nothing.
But her parents, immigrants from Vietnam, were not driven by poverty. Indeed, Dang said they continued selling her even when her father moved to a very well paid job in Silicon Valley.
“Emotional depravity” was the driving factor behind her enslavement and this is common in all enslavers. “For my parents it was about domination and control,” she said, adding that her parents were abused as children and felt powerless in their own lives.
Dang escaped their clutches when she went to college, started learning about child labour and slavery, and realised it applied to her. “I saw freedom for the first time,” she added. “I was still being sold by my parents but my mind was growing at college.”
Today she wants to use her experience to help empower others with a similar past.
“I’m really interested in thinking about living beyond this story,” she added. “It’s a miracle for me to be alive. And so, how do I share my freedom with others?”
The two day conference was organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune