Juneteenth: A Vision for Modern Liberation and Equality

June 19, 2024

As we commemorate Juneteenth, reflecting on the hard-fought eradication of slavery in the United States, it reminds us of what civil rights activist Coretta Scott King said: “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”

Remembering Coretta’s vision of freedom, we must acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that slavery is not a relic of the past, especially when we zoom out to a global view. Modern slavery continues to affect millions of individuals worldwide. A troubling statistic from the International Labour Organization states that nearly 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery across 160 countries. That number has increased by 10 million since 2016 estimates.

Modern slavery takes different forms and manifestations like debt bondage, human trafficking, and sexual slavery to entrap individuals in cycles of abuse and poverty. Despite laws and efforts to combat this, it remains deeply entrenched in many societies.

Understanding Modern Slavery and its Gendered Reality

Women and girls account for approximately 54% of modern slavery victims worldwide. Each one has been robbed of her dignity, her autonomy, and her future.

Child marriage specifically draws our attention amongst the many gendered forms of modern slavery as it parallels the historical injustices that Juneteenth represents – the denial of basic human rights and the perpetuation of systemic inequality through complex intersections. One in five girls across the globe are married as children, often resulting in lifelong servitude, abuse, and limited opportunities for education and personal growth. This denial of agency is exacerbated by their age, rendering them particularly vulnerable to coercion and exploitation within familial and societal contexts. It perpetuates cycles of dependency and vulnerability, trapping young girls in situations where they are denied autonomy over their own lives and bodies. Recognizing child marriage as a form of modern slavery underscores the urgent need to safeguard children’s rights and ensure their protection from exploitative practices that impede their development and well-being.

The Impact of Economic Disempowerment

Economic disempowerment plays a pivotal role in perpetuating the vulnerability of women and girls to various forms of modern slavery, including child marriage. The intersection of poverty, limited educational opportunities, and restricted access to economic resources collectively heightens their susceptibility to exploitation. In contexts where financial resources are scarce, women and girls from marginalized communities face heightened risks as they lack the means to secure their own livelihoods or protect themselves from coercive practices.

For instance, in the case of child marriage, economic pressures often drive families to marry off their daughters at a young age. These pressures stem from a lack of viable economic opportunities and a perception of girls as economic burdens rather than individuals with rights. Moreover, the economic disempowerment of women and girls restricts their ability to make autonomous decisions about their own lives, including choices regarding marriage, education, and employment.

Investing in Women and Financial Inclusion as a First Step to Break Cycles of Dependency

Financial empowerment is a crucial factor in enhancing women’s autonomy and mitigating their vulnerability to exploitation. Access to financial services enables them to invest in education, vocational training, or entrepreneurship, promoting sustainable income generation and reducing vulnerability to coerced labor. Women who are financially empowered are better equipped to negotiate their circumstances, take informed decisions, and proactive steps to safeguard their rights and well-being.

Beyond her own agency, research consistently demonstrates that when women control financial resources, households experience improved access to healthcare and nutrition, and children—both girls and boys—tend to stay in school longer. Enhanced financial independence among women holds the potential to break cycles of poverty in developing countries, improve educational outcomes, reduce crime and extremism, and foster economic stability and inclusive growth. Investing in women’s economic empowerment not only enriches individual lives but also acts as a catalyst for broader societal advancement and prosperity.

How the Finance Industry Can Combat Gendered Modern Slavery

Women’s World Banking is dedicated to the economic empowerment of women through financial inclusion, a critical factor in the fight against modern slavery. Our initiatives aim to create a world where women can thrive independently with access to savings, remittances, credit, and other financial solutions and programs. One recent example is our partnership with Ujiivan, a small finance bank in India, to develop a gender-intentional savings solution. Before this initiative, customers typically saved only 33% of their income through unsafe informal channels. Following the implementation of the new solution, the average savings rate increased significantly to 71%, providing customers with better financial security against unforeseen crises and improving their overall financial well-being.

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Financial inclusion should be recognized as a powerful strategy to combat modern slavery, particularly in reducing individuals’ vulnerabilities to traffickers who exploit economic hardship. Comprehensive financial education equips women with the skills to make informed financial decisions and understand their economic rights, enhancing their ability to protect themselves and their families from exploitation.

Women and girls also need access to legal protections and awareness of their rights to effectively challenge exploitative practices like child marriage. Legal frameworks and policies that uphold women’s rights and enforce protections against child marriage are essential in creating a supportive environment where economic empowerment can thrive.

Despite a blanket ban on such practices, modern slavery remains a lucrative enterprise, generating an estimated USD 150 billion in illicit funds annually. Financial institutions may also find themselves linked to modern slavery through their operations or business relationships. Given its deep integration into the global economy, the financial sector has a unique opportunity to lead the transformation of our global economy to address modern slavery.

Moving Forward

Today, it is a call to action for policymakers, legislators, financial services providers and international leaders to prioritize and enhance modern anti-slavery initiatives. It is imperative to develop and enforce comprehensive frameworks that prevent exploitation, protect survivors, and dismantle trafficking networks. Collective and coordinated efforts across sectors are needed in sharing best practices to implement and strengthen policies.

Our reflection on Juneteenth extends beyond historical commemoration to a commitment to addressing the ongoing injustices that perpetuate modern slavery. This involves advocating for women’s economic empowerment, stronger legal frameworks, supporting survivors, and raising awareness about the insidious ways modern slavery infiltrates our global economy.

Coretta Scott King’s words remind us that the struggle for freedom is continuous, intersectional, and intergenerational. It is a call to action for each of us to contribute to a world where freedom, liberty, and justice are a lived reality for all, not merely a historical milestone.