In many ways, Mabel is a typical teen. She goes to school, hangs out with her friends, and daydreams about her future. But for years, Mabel’s life was anything but ordinary.
When Mabel was just a young girl, her mother passed away, and she was sent to live with her grandparents in a poor village in the West African nation of Ghana. Unable to afford to take care of her, they sent her to work in the fishing industry on Lake Volta, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes.
There, Mabel was held captive as a slave, forced to work up to 17 hours straight with little food and no pay. During the day, she would fold fishing nets on the lake, where strong winds constantly threatened to capsize the wooden boats—and drown everyone on board. At night, she had to make dinner for the other workers.
“I hardly slept at all,” Mabel told reporters years later. “Every evening, I hoped that there would be a storm, so I wouldn’t have to go out on the lake.”
Since then, Mabel’s life has dramatically improved. When she was 15, aid workers raided the lake and brought her to safety. She was able to attend school for the first time and now dreams of becoming a nurse.
It may sound hard to believe, but Mabel’s story is similar to those of millions of people worldwide. According to the Global Slavery Index, more than 40 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery, including 5.5 million children. Like Mabel, many of them are from poor communities in Africa or East Asia, where poverty, corruption, crime, and discrimination make them vulnerable to human traffickers.
“People tend to think of slavery as a historical problem,” says Katharine Bryant of the Walk Free Foundation, an antislavery organization. “But millions of people are still being exploited.”
Now new initiatives, including one driven by kids, are calling attention to the crisis. The efforts involve pressuring lawmakers around the world to enforce antislavery laws, encouraging companies to ensure that forced laborers aren’t working in their supply chains, and raising awareness about the issue.
“Modern slavery is a hidden crime,” says Bryant. “So it’s very important that we talk about it.”