The Impact of Human Trafficking on Sustainable Development and Climate Change
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By: Matthew Friedman, CEO, The Mekong Club
Human trafficking, a violation of human rights affecting millions worldwide, poses a significant challenge to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and addressing the climate crisis. This article by Matthew Freidman, CEO of The Mekong Club, explores the interconnections between human trafficking, poverty, inequality, social exclusion, and climate change. It highlights the importance of utilizing drama, media, and film as powerful tools to educate and raise awareness about this critical issue by discussing a film he helped produce: Chameli, a tale of love, life, corruption, and evil, providing a brief glimpse into a world seldom seen by outsiders – a world that is all too often much closer to home than we might want to admit.
Drama, media, and film possess the extraordinary power to raise awareness and educate people about critical issues, and human trafficking is undoubtedly one of them. This grave violation of human rights affects millions of individuals worldwide, trapping an estimated 50 million victims at any given time. Recognizing its direct connection to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate crisis, we can utilize these creative mediums to shed light on this pressing matter.
The SDGs serve as a blueprint for eradicating poverty, safeguarding our planet, and ensuring universal well-being and peace. By perpetuating poverty and inequality while violating human rights, human trafficking directly undermines these goals. Its impact is especially profound on marginalized communities, exacerbating social exclusion and obstructing access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.
In parallel, the climate crisis further aggravates existing social and economic disparities, leading to forced migration and displacement. As climate-related disasters become more frequent and intense, vulnerable populations face heightened risks of exploitation, playing directly into the hands of traffickers who prey upon their desperation.
Hence, it is vital to integrate efforts to combat human trafficking within broader initiatives aimed at achieving the SDGs and addressing the climate crisis. Drama, media, and film provide powerful platforms to promote social inclusion, raise awareness, and educate the public about this issue. By showcasing the interconnectedness of human trafficking with poverty, inequality, and the climate crisis, we can foster empathy and understanding among audiences, encouraging them to take action.
Many human trafficking victims are tricked and lured into going away with the trafficker based on promises of a job, a marriage proposal, or a better life. A major reason why these approaches can succeed is that the trafficking victims, their families, and their communities are unaware that these ploys even exist. One effective way to educate communities is through the use of dramatic films. In Nepal, one example of this was a full-length motion picture titled Chameli. This two-hour film focused on a girl who was married to a man who eventually trafficked her to a brothel in Bombay. The story depicts the brutality of the recruitment process, her journey to India, what happens at the brothel, and how she eventually escapes.
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The reason I chose to fund this film was simple. For years, many activists had been working on issues related to child prostitution and trafficking girls in South Asia. Throughout this period, many organizations funded numerous studies to identify the scope of the problem using qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Unfortunately, these studies tended to be too academic and didn’t really capture the true essence of what was involved when a person was forced into prostitution. Second, most Nepalese people, especially villagers, don’t tend to read these kinds of monographs. Therefore, the producer decided to try to describe what happens through the medium of drama. The idea was to develop an understanding of the problem and some empathy using lifelike characters who actually experienced trafficking as the story unfolded. This allowed viewers to understand the problem from not only an intellectual level but also an emotional one.
Chameli was a tale of love, life, corruption, and evil, and it provided a brief glimpse into a world seldom seen by outsiders – a world that is all too often much closer to home than we might want to admit.
The mastermind behind the film was Ravi Baral, one of the most compassionate, innovative, and creative filmmakers I have ever met and someone I consider to be a dear friend. The film Ravi created represented a number of milestones for Nepal. It was the first “nondocumentary” type film to deal with a serious subject. It was one of the few films out of South Asia that attempted to address this sensitive subject. The film won several international motion picture awards and ran for the longest time of any film in Kathmandu theater history – 79 consecutive days. It was also translated into Bangla to be viewed across Bangladesh.
Chameli achieved many remarkable outcomes, including raising awareness of the topic, helping to correct misconceptions about the traffickers, helping develop a sense of empathy and compassion for the victims, and having an impact on men who regularly used prostitutes. One man who was interviewed after an airing of the movie said, “I wish I had never seen this story. I had no idea these women were forced into this profession. It is so unsexy to know this. I don’t think I can go back to a place like that again.” Another man said, “I felt so angry to think that those Indian men are using our girls. This has to stop.” Finally, one of the woman viewers admitted, “I cried through the whole film. I had no idea this was happening. The film opened my eyes.”
Because the project had a shoestring budget, Ravi was forced to come up with innovative, cost-effective ways to produce the film. For example, through a family friend, he managed to transform an old palace located on the grounds of a Christian school in Kathmandu into a brothel site. The building and the street in front of it were transformed into an authentic, lifelike depiction of an Indian red-light district. About a hundred extras were brought up from the lower part of Nepal to add to the effect. I can only imagine what the students at that school thought about this change when they walked past it on their way to their classes.
As another cost-cutting effort, he recruited actors and actresses among people who had never acted before. After providing a month’s training, they were cast into their roles. Another reason for this approach was that the director couldn’t find any established actresses to play the roles of prostitutes. The reason for this attitude became apparent after the film was completed. The main star of the film, who played Chameli, was kicked out of her house by her father for playing this part. He felt it brought shame to the family. Following this outcome, Ravi paid for her university studies. She later went on to become a recognized movie star in Nepal.
Throughout my life, I have watched thousands of films. It is one of my favorite pastimes. But of all the films I’ve ever seen, the ending of Chameli was my favorite. There was something about Chameli’s final act that still gives me chills.
During my career, I funded many similar projects. In Mongolia, I helped to produce a 26-part educational soap opera focusing on HIV/AIDS. It was based on the tried and tested education-entertainment format that had been implemented in many countries globally – Soul City and Sesame Street being notable examples. In addition to increasing awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention among clients of sex workers, the series taught internationally accepted responses to such issues as stigma, HIV/AIDS in the workplace, care and support, and voluntary counseling and testing. It also addressed related issues such as human trafficking and health issues such as tuberculosis. The series was broadcast nationwide on Mongolian National Television over a six-month period with an estimated weekly audience of 500,000 citizens. In the post-broadcast period, the series was made available without charge for use in schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, and other public enterprises.
Using drama as a medium to educate is a tried and true intervention that works to address human rights issues such as human trafficking. It allows people to learn about a problem through the characters and the story that plays out on the big screen or television.
Through compelling narratives, characters, and visuals, these creative mediums can vividly portray the challenges faced by trafficking victims and the urgent need for societal change. By depicting the struggles and triumphs of survivors, the role of traffickers, and the underlying systemic factors, drama, media, and film can illuminate the complexity of this issue and motivate viewers to engage in solutions.
Moreover, by highlighting the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities and the subsequent rise in human trafficking, these mediums can underscore the urgency of addressing both issues simultaneously. They can inspire individuals to support climate adaptation and mitigation measures that reduce vulnerability and create a more secure future for all.
In essence, leveraging drama, media, and film to educate people about human trafficking allows us to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. By creating powerful narratives that resonate with audiences, we can foster a sense of responsibility and empower individuals to contribute to the fight against human trafficking. Together, we can strive towards a just and sustainable future, where every person, regardless of their background or circumstances, can thrive in an inclusive and equitable world.
About Matthew Friedman
Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 29 years’ experience as a manager, program designer, evaluator and frontline responder. He is currently Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Mekong Club, an organization of Hong Kong-based private sector business leaders who have joined forces to help fight human trafficking in Asia. Mr. Friedman was previously Regional Project Manager at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) in Thailand, an inter-agency coordinating body that linked the United Nations system with governments and civil society groups in China, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Prior to this, he worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal where he designed and managed country and regional human trafficking programs. Mr Friedman also offers regular technical advice to numerous governments and corporation working to stop slavery, and is the author of eleven books.
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