By Katherine Schwarzenegger
Did you know that approximately 27 million people are enslaved in the world today? Human trafficking is a global issue, and it rears its ugly head in some surprising places -- like Los Angeles. The reality hit me a few years ago, when I joined my mother on a day trip to an L.A. shelter for victims of trafficking. All of them were women, and their stories were heartbreaking. According to CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking), an estimated 10,000 women are being held in underground brothels in Los Angeles today.
As we approach The Women’s Conference, which deals so much with the empowerment of women worldwide, it’s a good time to look at this issue. To get more perspective, I spoke with Sri Lankan-born Konthi at the CAST center. Her story is one I will remember for life.
Konthi was 19 and had just finished high school in Sri Lanka. She was looking for a job through an agency in Singapore, and they found her one as a housekeeper. Konthi’s mother was too sick to work, and her father was not making enough money as a carpenter to support the family. Her sister had been married off and left her parents with no steady income. Now it was up to Konthi to find work.
In 1996 she began working as a housekeeper for four adults at a house in Singapore. In 1998, the main couple she had been working for asked her to travel to Los Angeles with them to visit their daughter. Shortly after they arrived in Los Angeles, the couple left for Canada and never returned, leaving Konthi at their daughter’s home. Over the next two years Konthi was forced to care for the children and pets, endure the unpredictable temper of her boss, sew clothing, and was often told to clean the house’s marble floors with nothing but a toothbrush. She was never allowed out of the house – and she was never paid.
Konthi asked daily for her pay, so she could send the money back to her family in Sri Lanka, but her boss gave her nothing. When she was finally allowed to send her family a letter, she received one back that stated that her father had passed away, leaving her mother alone. Now Konthi begged daily to be allowed to go home, but her boss only got more frustrated with her.
On May 15, 2000 Konthi had a change of luck. There was a knock on the door of her bosses’ home. Just as they always did when company came, the family told Konthi to go upstairs and lock herself in the closet, so no one would get suspicious. Later, her boss came upstairs and told her the IRS was at the door, but that she hadn’t answered it. When the IRS returned to the house several times, the boss’ only choice was to put Konthi in one of her own nice dresses and to tell the IRS that she was the niece of the family and was visiting. When the IRS asked for Konthi’s passport and learned she didn’t have one, she was immediately taken away by an immigration agent. That was Konthi’s lucky day. She was introduced to a woman named Jenny who worked at the CAST offices, who took her to a safe house and had her tell her story in court.
Just when Konthi thought that she was safe from her boss, she noticed that when she was in court, the interpreter wasn’t telling the judge everything she was saying. Konthi complained and told CAST that she felt like she wasn’t being represented properly. She was right. She later found out that the interpreter had been approached in the courthouse parking lot by Konthi’s boss, who told her what to say in court so that the boss wouldn’t get in trouble for mistreating Konthi.
Eventually, Konthi was able to tell the truth to the legal system, and she was given a TVISA, which allowed her to stay in the United States temporarily. In April 2002, Konthi moved into her own apartment and took nursing assistant courses. She started working in a nursing home and is taking classes at a local college to get her RN degree. She sends money back to her sister in Sri Lanka and has paid for all of her nieces’ and nephews’ education. Konthi is a member of the CAST caucus and loves her role as advocate, telling her story to increase public awareness of the issue of human trafficking.
I asked Konthi what she thought the solution was, and she said, “Prevention through education.” She told me that if there was one thing that she could tell women in foreign countries, it would be that they have rights as human beings and do not have to be slaves.
To learn more about human trafficking and the terrible toll it is taking on the world’s women, go to www.castla.org
Katherine Schwarzenegger is a junior at the University of Southern California and is majoring in communications with a minor in gender studies. She created VIDA Bags last fall to promote the awareness of maternal mortality. Her book on body image -- Rock What You’ve Got!: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who’s Been There and Back -- will be released on September 14th. You can follow Katherine Schwarzenegger on Twitter @KSchwarzenegger.
Katherine Schwarzenegger will be speaking at The Women's Conference 2010.