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Women's History Month, NYC Neighborhoods
Modern-Day Slavery: Stories about Human Sex Trafficking and Comfort Women
During World War II, when the Japanese invaded and occupied Shanghai, Nanjing and other coastal cities of eastern China, they looted, intimidated, and massacred millions of people to prove their imperial strength and mercilessness. Many children and women were raped and killed during the invasion; towns were burned to crisp and lives were forever changed and destroyed.
Five years ago, my parents told me that my grandmother had endured such a horrific event when she was in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian, a coastal province in China. She witnessed people getting killed, and women were kidnapped and brutally raped by the soldiers; with her family, my grandmother had to "mess her face" up to discourage the Japanese from taking her as a "comfort woman." She used dirt from the floor to cover up her face to look unattractive and unappealing to the Japanese. Luckily it worked for her.
To this day, I never asked my grandmother about what happened during that time but I assumed it is something that no one should experience again even if it is retelling the story and making her relive the traumatic moment. Authors such as Iris Chang in her book The Rape of Nanking vividly describe the harrowing and painful history of the Japanese invasion in China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, etc. and the Japanese treatment of the people from these countries.
During the war in Asia, women and girls who were kidnapped were often turned into "comfort women," another term for enforced sex slaves servicing the Japanese military. Known as "ianfu" in Japanese, many comfort women serviced over a hundred officers and military officials on a daily basis; they were trapped in their hubs called "comfort stations" throughout Asia and were often deprived of food and freedom. Some tried to escape and the ones who were unsuccessful in escaping were recaptured and beaten or murdered.
There were also cases of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) where women caught them, and some also became infertile as a result of the trauma. In some of their stories, women committed suicide to end the nightmare of being a comfort woman.
Approximately "400,000+" Asian women and girls from China, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and some European, particularly Dutch women living in Asia at the time were trafficked and turned into military sex slaves. Till this day, the data is still being contested by historians, politicians and activists. When the war ended, women who survived the trauma readjusted to their very different lives.
Much of their stories are being challenged by the Japanese government today, however, with interviews and resources covering their testimonies and the records documenting the history, it is evident that comfort women did exist in Asia during the war. The subject is often sensitive but needs to be discussed so that history will not repeat itself.
Selected Resources about Comfort Women:
- NYPL Resources on the History of Comfort Women
- An interview with a Dutch woman who was a comfort woman: 50 Years of Silence: The Story of Jan Ruff-O'Herne
- Washington Coalition For Comfort Women Issues
- Discover the roles that women played in World War II
- Resources on World War II in Asia
- Hear about their women's testimonies in this artistic film called Comfort Women Wanted
Something so heinous still exists in society today. The dark side of immigration/emigration is human trafficking, the modern-day slavery.
This slave trade system has generated over billions of dollars for criminal organizations and networks from all over the world. The victims' stories and incidents are far more grueling than what history reveals it to be. The FBI puts it very clearly, "It’s sad but true: here in this country (the U.S.), people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves." See here for the FBI's take on Human Trafficking >>
The 2000 United Nations Trafficking Protocol established the term trafficking as the following: "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs..." Check out the CIA's World Factbook about Human Trafficking >>
New York City is no exception: there are cases after cases of humans being bought, sold and trafficked throughout the city; some may owe "debts" and must repay them by any means while others were hoping to find better opportunities for work in NYC but were innocently tricked into becoming a sex slave. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 100,000 to 293,000 children in America are in danger of becoming sexual commodities.
"Every minute of every day, the most vulnerable women and children are raped for profit with impunity, yet efforts to combat sex trafficking remain woefully inadequate and misdirected... Sex trafficking is one of the ugliest contemporary actualizations of global capitalism because it was directly produced by the harmful inequalities spread by the process of economic globalization: depending of rural poverty, increased economic disenfranchisement of the poor, the net extraction of wealth and resources from poor economies into richer ones, and the broad-based erosion of real human freedoms across the developing world..." (pg. 3-4 in Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery by Siddarth Kara)
Women and children from Europe can get transported to the U.S. or from Asia to Europe and from the U.S. to Europe; there are many criminal networks and trafficking activities going on throughout the world. Many films and historical accounts have covered this topic and displayed the horror of sex trafficking. The blockbuster thriller Taken starring Liam Neeson in his role as a former CIA agent is worth checking out; in this movie, Liam is trying to save his daughter from being sold and trafficked as a sex slave in Europe. The sequel is Taken 2. Keep in mind: there are many stereotypes depicted in these movies.
There is hope in combating human sex trafficking, consider the New York Asian Women's Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to women's issues including sexual and labor exploitation in New York or Restore NYC, another nonprofit devoted to end sex trafficking in New York City.
Resources on Human Sex Trafficking:
- Discover our resources about the history, research and studies behind human trafficking in the United States.
- Read more about about the epidemic of human trafficking in the world.
- For films about human trafficking at NYPL, see here
- For online resources, see our Articles and Databases page (recommended resources include JSTOR and Project Muse.)
- Look at Wide Angle on PBS research on the routes and business of sex trafficking around the world.
- Read about one victim's account of being kidnapped and trafficked in Nepal from the BBC.
- One of our former Cullman Center Fellow Patrick Keefe wrote an award winning book called The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream about the human smuggling ring operated out of New York's Chinatown in the 1990s. Here his conversation below with Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found >>