Religious leaders in India have vowed to use their influence to end modern-day slavery, saying the exploitation, abuse and confinement of millions of men, women and children around the world was a “crime against God”.
Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Baha’i leaders and representatives signed a declaration, organised by the Australia-based Global Freedom Network, pledging to help eradicate slavery and human trafficking by 2020.
Some 16 million slaves – nearly half the global total of around 36 million – live in India, according to a survey by the Walk Free Foundation, a sister organisation of the Network.
Anti-slavery activists welcomed the declaration but were sceptical about its impact on India’s deep-rooted patriarchy.
Spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, speaking at the signing ceremony, said ending slavery was the “most needed mission on the planet” and that faith leaders, as well as government, corporates and civil society groups, had a major role to play.
“We can make people who enslave realise that what they are doing is a crime against God … Slavery is the worst insult you can give to God,” he said.
“This is where faith leaders and spiritual people can make a big impact in transforming the minds and hearts of people.”
The ceremony was the third initiative by the Global Freedom Network to get religious leaders around the world to throw their weight behind the fight against human trafficking and slavery.
Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and leaders of other faiths signed a similar declaration in Vatican City last year, and religious leaders in Canberra did the same on Wednesday.
Almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide – trafficked into brothels, forced into manual labour, victims of debt bondage or even born into servitude, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index.
Almost half of them – 16 million – are in India, where slavery ranges from bonded labour in quarries and kilns to domestic servitude and prostitution, according to the Walk Free Foundation.
In Thursday’s declaration, 11 spiritual and religious leaders in India pledged to do all within their power to work “for the freedom of all who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored.”
As well as Shankar, the signatories included Hindu leaders Morari Bapu and Purjya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, Muslim Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed, Christian leader Alwan Masih and Jewish leader Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.
Activists welcomed the move but remained sceptical, saying that religious leaders are often drivers of the patriarchal attitudes that promote the low status and exploitation of women through slavery and other forms of violence.
They cited discriminatory practices such as the “triple talaq” (instant verbal divorce) in Islam, and the illegal, yet still practised Hindu custom of keeping “devadasis” – girls who are dedicated to the service of a deity but are often sexually exploited by priests.
“I am happy that someone has taken the initiative to bring the faith leaders on board and at least stand on a platform like this and give it a cosmetic solidarity,” said Sunitha Krishnan of Prajwala, a Hyderabad-based charity which rescues and rehabilitates victims of sex trafficking.
“I don’t think most know what the ground situation is and whether they realise that the outfits they are representing are the reason for many of these things. The ‘Devadasi system’, for example, they have to question it, but they don’t.”