Modern slavery: Lessons for today from a shocking past

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Shamere McKenzie was 21 and trying to find a way to pay her student tuition fees when she met her trafficker. He seemed like a nice guy, and promised she could make money dancing.

Instead he forced her into sex slavery. For 18 months she was sold for sex, beaten, raped, trafficked to five different states and tortured if she failed to meet her $1,500 a night quota.

Her story does not fit the traditional image of slavery. Shamere was not forcibly shackled and shipped from her home.

But, like millions enslaved today, she was exploited, forced to work against her will and treated as if she was someone’s property.

She had been a promising student at a New York university when she met the man who appeared sweet and intelligent, but who forced her into prostitution.

When she was disobedient, she was badly beaten. When she thought of running away, she feared she or her family would be killed.

When she refused to drive other women across state lines, she had a gun placed in her mouth. When it failed to go off, she was beaten with it.

In the end, Shamere fled and was rescued by a stranger and so began an even more remarkable chapter in her life. One in which she became a survivor, leader and advocate for the enslaved.

Today, she is a consultant, mentor and speaker on the subject of modern slavery, and the CEO of Sun Gate Foundation, a charity helping human trafficking survivors into education.

"It’s important for me to tell my story because I want people to know this exists and it is real. Other survivors out there may be suffering from guilt and shame and the abuse of being enslaved, and are keeping it to themselves and not seeking help. They must know that there is help available."

Shamere McKenzie, consultant, mentor and CEO of Sun Gate Foundation

Shamere has spoken at a major conference at the University of Hull debating a new global approach to combating modern slavery.

Anti-Slavery Usable Past brought experts from around the world to the Wilberforce Institute to discuss what can be learned from history in tackling slavery today.

The £1.8-million research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is led by the University of Hull with partners from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Nottingham.