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COMMENTARY: 'We can't let this be the new normal'

John Sutter: Nigeria kidnappings highlight horrific worldwide problem

John Sutter | 5/7/2014, 6:15 a.m.
A pictorial of the Bring Back Our Girls Protest in Lagos, Ikeja, Nigeria on May 5, 2014. Ayobami Macaulay/iReport

— During a September 2013 visit to Rome, the United Nations' special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, told the story of a 21-year-old woman who was trafficked from Nigeria through Turkey, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia and eventually to Italy. The story highlights not only the international nature of the network but also the importance of global vigilance to spot trafficking victims.

"Not only was she trafficked but was held in debt bondage as her father back in Edo state (of Nigeria) had put up his land as collateral for the payment of the 60,000 euros ($84,000) fee illegal contract to bring her to Europe," Ezeilo said of the woman, who was not identified in an online summary and transcript of the speech.

"The young woman was moved from Turin to Milan and Paris to sell her body in order to repay her debt. She was rescued following a random identification check in Italy, where she now benefits from assistance."

As we keep the young women in Nigeria on our minds and pressure governments to rescue them before they can be sold into marriage or slavery, we also should think about the conditions that foster slavery internationally.

Poverty, instability and a lack of education tend to make the practice of slavery more likely and help it persist.

This is particularly troubling given reports that the Nigerian girls were kidnapped because they were at school. Boko Haram, the group taking credit, has a name that roughly translates to "Western education is a sin."

Education and stability also could help end slavery.

"Any time there's conflict -- particularly when that's accompanied by historic discrimination against women and sex violence and abuse -- it's actually not uncommon that there would be this type of kidnapping," Karen Stauss, director of programs at Free the Slaves, a Washington-based advocacy group, told me.

It's crucial not to downplay the importance of finding the young women in Nigeria, but I agree with Stauss when she says that every potential victim of trafficking and sex slavery has an important story to tell.

All of them matter.

It's impossible for each to become the center of global media coverage. But each deserves our advocacy. If you live in the United States, asking your legislators to pass the International Violence Against Women Act is one way to show your support for all of the women around the world who are hurt because of their gender. The act would make combating gender-based violence a central goal of U.S. foreign policy.

Change.org has an online petition you can sign.

I'm sure there are some people who will read this and think that Nigeria and the issues of slavery and the sex trade are far too distant to matter to them. For one, that's patently untrue. Trafficking occurs in the United States and Europe, as well.

But, if that is your view, I'd ask you to consider what Emeka Daniel told CNN after the kidnapping in Nigeria. Daniel, whose father was kidnapped in Nigeria in a separate incident, according to the CNN report, said some people in Nigeria reacted to the news by saying "Why do I care?" and "Nigeria is done."

They'd resigned to the control this extremist group exerts. And they'd lost hope that the country can be made safe.

Not Daniel.

"I refused to believe that," he said, according to the report. "We can't let this be the new normal."

I'd second that.

This sort of violence against women could start to seem normal if it's ignored. So don't ignore it.

Demand, as so many are, that the United States and others do more to help rescue the girls. And refuse to ignore the fact that, every day, unseen and unheard women face sex slavery and discrimination on an unthinkable magnitude.

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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