When Nasreen was just a young child, she saw her 12-year-old sister being forced into marriage, and her mother warned her that she would be next.
Around the age of nine, with the help of a cousin, she fled her small rural Nepalese village – she cannot say exactly how old she was as her birth has never been registered.
She arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal with nothing – not even a surname – and spent 15 hours a day working in a sweatshop, creating clothes that would then be airlifted to department stores in wealthy countries. .
At night, she fell asleep on the piles of clothes and dreamed of where they would end up.
“I was looking for freedom and a better life and found myself in forced child labor, in one of those tiny rooms in a textile factory with six others – it was loosely regulated, no windows and 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 to “chief of the tribe”. She now works as co-director of Empowerment Collective, a US-based group that helps eradicate modern slavery by giving marginalized women the support and skills they need to ensure their autonomy and dignity.
But the latest Global Slavery Index from international human rights organization Walk Free found that more than 50 million people around the world live in modern slavery, exacerbated by war, the pandemic of COVID-19 and climate change.
And the problem is only getting worse – some 10 million more people are enslaved than five years ago.
While the UK has proven 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 labor cases are linked to global supply chains.
The UK accounted for £21bn of risky imported goods, including electronics, fish, clothing, textiles and timber.
People in high-income countries “need to start asking about the clothes you’re wearing, the phone you have in your pocket, or the seaweed you ate last night,” Nasreen said.
“These things contain slavery.”
How the UK imports products made by slaves
Nasreen said while the number of slaves in some parts of the western world is low – statistics suggest 122,000 live in modern day slavery in the UK – ‘that doesn’t mean slavery doesn’t exist’ – but it is simply imported.
“Forced labor is found in low-income countries, but it is deeply linked to demand from high-income countries,” she said.
“These people are hidden, invisible. They have no voice. They are so traumatized that they cannot speak for themselves.”
Worldwide, more than half of people in modern slavery, like Nasreen, are women. A quarter are children.
Women and girls are at disproportionate risk of forced marriage, accounting for 68% of all people forced into marriage.
However, estimates remain conservative – UNICEF suggests that there are 650 million women and girls married before the age of 18 worldwide.
Nasreen said her sister was “terrified” and crying when she was forced into marriage.
“But everyone said, that’s how it is, when they get married, they cry,” she said.
“I asked my mum why you were forcing my sister and she said it wasn’t that I was doing it – that’s how our culture is.
“That’s how our society is – that’s what happened to me, that’s what happened to your sister, then it will happen to you.”
“Child labor and modern slavery are so normalized in our part of the world,” she added. “A lot of victims don’t see this as a problem because the trauma is also normalized.”
The Walk Free report found that migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labor than non-migrant workers.
Mahendra Pandey, a former migrant worker in Saudi Arabia, said people like him are “entering the country in good faith”.
He continued, “But once we are there, and when we cannot return to our own country, we face discrimination, abuse and exploitation.”
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The global community is now even further from achieving the goals it has agreed to make a priority and no government is on track to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 to end poverty. modern slavery, forced labor 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,” Grace said. Forrest, founding director of Walk Free. .
“It’s a mirror held up to power, reflecting who in a given society has it and who doesn’t. Nowhere is this paradox more present than in our global economy through transnational supply chains. “