When Nasreen was just a young child, she saw her 12 -year-old sister forced into marriage, and her mother warned her she would be next.
At the age of around nine, with the help of a male cousin, she fled her small rural Nepalese village – she can’t say exactly how old she was because her birth was never recorded.
She arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal with nothing – not even a last name – and spent 15 hours a day toiling in a sweatshop, creating garments that would later be flown to department stores in wealthy countries.
At night, she would fall asleep on the piles of clothes and dream about where they would end up.
“I was looking for freedom and a better life and I ended up as forced child labour, in one of these tiny rooms in a textile factory with six others – it was loosely regulated, no windows and the doors locked,” she told Sky News.
Nasreen eventually escaped the cycle of slavery with the help of a mentor, and adopted the surname Sheikh – which in Arabic translates as ‘Chief of the Tribe’. She now works as the co-director of the Empowerment Collective, A US-based group that helps eradicate modern-day slavery by giving marginalised women the support and skills they need to ensure their self-sufficiency and dignity.
But the latest Global Slavery Index from International human rights organisation Walk Free found more than 50 million people around the world live in modern slavery, exacerbated by warfare, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
And the problem is only getting worse – some 10 million more people are enslaved compared to five years ago.
While the UK was found to have taken the most action to combat modern slavery (followed by the Netherlands and Portugal) it remains complicit. Nearly two-thirds of all forced labour cases are connected to global supply chains.
The UK accounted for £21bn in at-risk imported products, including electronics, fish, garments, textiles and timber.
People living in higher-income countries “need to start asking questions about the clothes you are wearing, the phone you have in your pocket or the seaweed you ate last night,” Nasreen said.
“Those things contain slavery.”
How the UK imports slave-made goods
Nasreen said that while the number of enslaved people in parts of the Western world is low – statistics suggest 122,000 living in modern slavery in the UK – “it does not mean that slavery is not there” – but it is just being imported.
“Forced labour is found in low-income countries, but it is deeply connected to demand from higher income countries,” she said.
“These people are hidden, invisible. They don’t have a voice. They are so traumatised they can’t speak for themselves.”
Worldwide, over half of those in modern slavery, like Nasreen, are female. A quarter are children.
Women and girls are disproportionately at risk of forced marriage, accounting for 68% of all people forced to marry.
However, estimates remain conservative – UNICEF suggests that worldwide there are 650 million women and girls who were married before the age of 18.
Nasreen said her sister was “terrified” and crying when she was forced into marriage.
“But everyone said, that’s how it goes, when they get married they cry,” she said.
“I asked my mother why are you forcing my sister and she said that it’s not that I’m doing it – this is how our culture is.
“This is how our society is – this is what happened to me, this is what happened to your sister, next it will happen to you.”
“Child labour and modern-day slavery are so normalised in our part of the world,” she added. “A lot of victims don’t see it as an issue because the trauma is normalised too.”
The report from Walk Free found migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labour than non-migrant workers.
Mahendra Pandey, a former migrant worker in Saudi Arabia, said people like him “enter the country in good faith”.
He continued: “But once were are there, and when we can’t go back to our own country, we face discrimination, abuses and exploitations.”
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The global community is now even further from achieving the goals it agreed to make a priority and no government is on track to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 of ending modern slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking by 2030.
“Modern slavery permeates every aspect of our society. It is woven through our clothes, lights up our electronics, and seasons our food. At its core, modern slavery is a manifestation of extreme inequality,” said Founding Director of Walk Free, Grace Forrest.
“It is a mirror held to power, reflecting who in any given society has it and who does not. Nowhere is this paradox more present than in our global economy through transnational supply chains.”