Freedom for all

“Eight years ago, I did not know that slavery existed today”

The former CEO of Ford Models wants to end modern day slavery

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JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Despite abundant evidence that it still persists in modern times, many people relegate slavery to the past. But human trafficking could be found in your neighbor’s house, anywhere from downtown Manhattan to Brazil. The human trafficking trade is the second most profitable criminal enterprise after drug trafficking, affecting more than 2.45 million people daily with a total market value of $31.6 billion, according to the United Nations.

Globally, the majority of trafficking victims are women and girls — about 75 percent according to the same study. The victims’ fates range from forced labour to sex slavery. They are often brought to unfamiliar environments where they don’t know anyone or even the language, further isolating them.

Many stories make the news; ISIS has abducted thousands of women and girls, Boko Haram infamously kidnapped 276 Chibok schoolgirls, threatening to traffic them and hundreds of other girls and women they have abducted. But many stories do not make the news.

Katie Ford, a giant in the modeling world, has been working to end modern day slavery. The former CEO of Ford Models will host an annual benefit for her foundation Freedom For All on May 13 where three survivors of human trafficking from the Philippines will share their stories.

Women in the World sat down with Katie Ford to examine the issue of human trafficking in 2015.

Women in the World: How did you go from being CEO of Ford Models to starting a foundation to combat human trafficking?

Katie Ford: I first learned about human trafficking when I was selling the Ford Modeling Agency. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking asked me to speak at their conference. Eight years ago I did not know that slavery existed today. And then I started hearing shocking stories.

When I was a model agent, we scouted everywhere in the world and we spoke with young women and their parents and told them about the possibilities about what would happen in New York. When people are trafficked, they are told the same things. But when they get to the place, what was promised does not happen.

WITW: Do you remember the first stories you heard about human trafficking?

KF: The first stories I heard were of women from the eastern block of Russia who were forced into sex slavery. The traffickers forced them by showing them pictures of their families being tortured back home so that they would comply.

One of the statements that I found the most shocking was at the conference they said that human trafficking is the third largest crime, after drugs and arms. I could not reconcile putting people in the same category with drugs and arms. Why are we comparing drugs and arms and people? People are considered a commodity to traffickers and there is no value on their life.

Katie Ford

Courtesy of Katie Ford

WITW: What do people need to be more aware of when it comes to modern-day slavery?

KF: People need to know that slavery exists everywhere. It’s next door. They need to know what they’re seeing and they need to ask what the brands that they buy from are doing. The networks that sell people are like businesses, so if those networks can be interrupted, it is one of the biggest ways to end trafficking.

WITW: Have you seen changes in modern slavery awareness as social media has become more prevalent, such as with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign?

KF: There is much more awareness now than there was eight years ago. CNN International’s [Freedom] project has done a lot to change people’s awareness of slavery. MSNBC’s series on slaves in America is excellent. I think there is much greater awareness. I also think people don’t know what to do. It’s very hard to know exactly what to do because it’s such a huge issue. So it has to be broken down into pieces by the people who work to fight it. I think donating money is the most useful thing in this case.

WITW: You recently went to Ghana, Philippines, and India. Can you tell me about those trips?

KF: In Ghana, we work with a group that saves children that are in the fishing villages on Lake Volta. Their desperately poor parents sell them, sometimes for $20, and their parents think they’re coming home in a year. The man who heads the group that I work with was enslaved himself. In the town where the children are taken from, he has created an entire system to start preventing it. It starts with educating the parents, having a women’s empowerment group, a refrigeration center, and he has built a school that has tripled in size in four years. They saved 21 kids this year and those kids told them about 20 other kids who were taken, so they went back and saved those kids. They are so powerful. When they start learning, it’s really amazing to watch what happens and how they spread the word.

In India, over a thousand women were saved and some of the government officials are starting to understand it and become empathetic; however, some are not. But in the Philippines, the girls that I’ve been watching grow up over the years are now in high school. They were saved from sex trafficking when they were eight or nine years old. There was one girl who rarely spoke, even a year ago, and this time she was leading the group.

Courtesy of Katie Ford

Courtesy of Katie Ford

WITW: Lately in Congress there has been a focus on child trafficking. Do you think this is enough? Or what needs to change?

KF: As far as the children from Central and South America who are coming across the border to be with their parents who have come here to work, if they’re caught they are being held in these terrible conditions. I think it is disgusting that we don’t just unite the children with their parents. A lot of children are being killed in the process and the whole situation is terrible. It’s taking all our resources to fight it and it’s not worth spending money to fight it when it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

WITW: What does the future hold for Freedom For All?

KF: An end to slavery.​

This interview has edited and condensed.

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