What Does Modern Slavery Look Like?

What Does Modern Slavery Look Like?

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photos by: Marcus Goh)

Interview with Lydia Bowden

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, at least 40.3 million people in 2016 were mired in modern slavery. Whether within the coal mining industry in North Korea, the cultivation of cocoa in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, or the catching of fish in Myanmar and Cambodia, throngs and throngs of people are being oppressed, cheated, and exploited today.

As a Singaporean living in a cloistered and peaceful environment, social justice can be a topic that is far-removed from daily conversations; “first world problems” seem to take centre-stage in my life. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lydia Bowden — Director of Strategic Partnerships from International Justice Mission Singapore and speaker for the upcoming Justice Conference Asia — and she shed some light on this pressing issue, especially of her experience within this field. In an interview with SELAH, she also distills her convictions and how we, as Singaporeans, can play a bigger part in championing causes for the afflicted and marginalised.

Could you share with us about International Justice Mission (IJM)?

IJM is a global anti-slavery organisation that works in 19 communities to combat slavery, trafficking, and other forms of violence that are directed at people living in poverty. We seek to rescue and restore victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and transform broken public justice systems.

Over the past 22 years, IJM and our partners have rescued over 49,000 people from oppression. Guided by our mission to protect the poor from violence, we partner with local authorities to strengthen public justice systems, as we believe that when these systems are effective, they not only protect the rescued individuals, but also millions (or even billions) of others who might have been abused.

How did you get involved with launching IJM’s Singapore office?

I first learnt about IJM in 2005 and was a long-time supporter of the work before officially joining the fold in February this year. I have friends who have been partnering with IJM through the years, so I have stayed close to the organisation’s cause. Since moving to Singapore in 2012, one of the highlights of my travels in the region has been to visit IJM’s field offices and draw closer to the local issues. I see it as a privilege to have been given this capacity to speak officially on behalf of IJM.

You’ve worked on issues surrounding forced migration and human trafficking in different countries. How did your journey of advocating for these causes begin?

My very first exposure to advocacy took place when I was 13 years old, when I travelled to Moscow, Russia, for a two-week humanitarian trip. During a particular visit to an orphanage, I met Anya, a four year-old girl who captured my heart. Although she wasn’t a typical “forced migrant,” she had been removed from her biological family and placed in institutional care because her home was no longer a safe place for her.

Ten days later, when I arrived back home, I implored my parents to consider adopting Anya. After some resistance, they eventually came around to the idea, and 1.5 years later, she became my adoptive sister!

That very experience set me on a lifelong quest to advocate for the marginalised in whatever capacity possible. God’s heart for the orphan, the widow, and the vulnerable is made known through both the Old and New Testaments. There is a time to care, and a time to advocate, although ideally they go hand-in-hand.

Child pictured is not an actual victim; image taken with consent. (Credit: International Justice Mission)

What has been the most challenging concern in your personal journey of fighting for social justice?

It can be discouraging — and even lonely — to beat this drum of justice. There are so many things clamouring for our attention; the needs of people living in poverty, slavery, or exploitative situations do not easily capture our minds and hearts when placed in competition with “time-absorbers” like social media. Moreover, we live very comfortable lives in Singapore, sheltered from some of the worst forms of injustice. Keeping these issues alive in tangible, meaningful, and relevant ways is perhaps the most difficult part about justice work.

Could you share with us what modern slavery in Southeast Asia looks like today?

It takes on many forms. There are many wonderful organisations and initiatives all across the region fighting slavery and injustice, but I will speak for what it looks like through IJM’s lens.

In the Philippines, it is the online sexual exploitation of children. Visual depictions (e.g. photos, videos, live streaming) that feature the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor are produced for a third party — who is not in the physical presence of the victim — in exchange for compensation.

Children as young as two months old have been rescued on IJM-supported operations across the country. Although my colleagues in the Philippines work around the clock to find these children, it is a tragic issue affecting thousands of children.

Throughout Southeast Asia, modern slavery takes the form of forced labour, on fishing boats, in seafood processing centres and factories. Men and women from less economically-developed countries are lured by false promises of employment, only to find themselves working in horrific and abusive conditions.

How do you think the layperson can play a bigger part in fighting to eliminate modern slavery?

Talk about it! As IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen, wisely said, “Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern slavery, but nothing will ever happen until we are.” It’s hard, but very important to raise awareness about these issues.

What do you think hinders Singaporeans from playing their part in actively learning more about social justice and/or fighting for it?

For all of us, ignorance is bliss. It’s more comfortable to pretend that dark, sad things don’t exist. In Singapore, many of us can live our lives in this delightful bubble.

At the same time, there is an encouraging change in the justice conversation in our city — many people are seeking ways to be involved. It takes effort to attend talks, read books, research, and find conversations about justice. However, they are happening, and we should all do our part to either join or start them.

Volunteers from Redemption Hill Church

You’ve started a Mercy and Justice ministry in your local church. How can churches in Singapore play her part when it comes to social justice?

The Mercy and Justice ministry at Redemption Hill Church (RHC) did not start overnight. It was a slow but intentional process of praying through how and why we wanted to engage. In order to understand the landscape, we had to actively grapple with local social issues — for us not to just talk about them but act. Once we realised that there were many wonderful outreach programs on our doorstep, it catalysed a movement to mobilise our community towards action.

Our mantra has always been to “go where government resources cannot,” i.e. be present in places where even the best policies and programmes are unable to reach. At RHC, we facilitate an initiative for volunteers to show up consistently for the lonely and marginalised. We also advocate on behalf of issues like foster care, given there is a shortage of foster parents across the country.

If every church in Singapore were to take in one foster child, the system would look very different. As a result, the church as a whole would be serving not only the children, but also the government. There is so much opportunity for churches to prayerfully consider how their communities can get involved with local needs. This should excite and not deter us.

What do you hope to see change in five years’ time?

I hope to see many more churches actively participating in this space, looking after their neighbours, and considering how to support vulnerable individuals across the region. Singapore has great potential to be a catalyst for change, and I believe we are at a tipping point — let’s talk again in five years!


The Justice Conference Asia (JCA) will be held in Singapore for the first time this year. Taking place on 18-19 October 2019, you can hear from international justice voices and practitioners in Asia on how we can practically how to reach out to our neighbours in compassion, justice, and love. More details can be found here.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


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