Huffington Post | March 18, 2015

Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), held a hearing entitled, "Ending Modern Slavery: What is the Best Way Forward?" We are at an opportune moment to look at the broad range of issues we must address in order to achieve the Committee's goal. Among them are the health needs of women and children worldwide, including the need for healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

The best estimates suggest almost 30 million people are held against their will through force, fraud or coercion, and paid little to nothing -- contemporary slavery. Millions set out in the hopes of finding a better life, only to find themselves (or their children) trapped in conditions of forced labor or prostitution. In India alone, millions -- including entire families for generations -- suffer as bonded laborers at the bottom of the caste system.

Organizations around the world are doing heroic work to bring these injustices to an end. Among the compelling witnesses at the hearing was Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM's extraordinary frontline work to end the crime of slavery is focused on law enforcement to bring slavery to an end. Through this it seeks to influence the behavior of perpetrators, attempting to adjust the economic risk calculus that comes into play when one individual pays money for the use of another. Other organizations such as Free the Slaves operate through community empowerment models.

We support the work of these groups. Small groups of citizens (and voters) have been the backbone of the antislavery movement since its inception more than 200 years ago. The world has changed, and so too have some forms of exploitation -- formal ownership, for example, is out, but disposability and control are in. What has grown, however, is the power of individuals committed to change.

In order to end slavery, many things must change. It is inarguable that poverty breeds the vulnerability that slavery and trafficking thrive on, especially in the developing world. A necessary, though not sufficient, condition to achieve an end to slavery is an end to the extreme poverty that blocks access to education and basic resources.

Mothers with many children wonder which of their children will be denied access to education. School might be free, but shoes, books and food often conspire against parents' best intentions. Desperate times lead to desperate measures, as some parents question whether their children will have better life alternatives if they simply offer them to orphanages, or to families who will care for the child in exchange for work, such as restaveks in Haiti.

Of course, most of the global poor avoid slavery. Yet the horrible truth is that some parents cannot see an alternative for the survival of their family than for themselves or their children to take steps that put them at risk of slavery. People in this situation are easy prey for exploiters.

Complementing other essential efforts, another element of "the best way forward" to end slavery has not been fully appreciated: strengthening health for mothers and children, including healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

Hope Through Healing Hands, founded and chaired by Senator Bill Frist, MD, has launched a Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide to listen to, educate, and activate faith leaders across sectors in the U.S. The Coalition includes pastors, authors, artists, academic and nonprofit leaders, bringing their leadership to bear on maternal, newborn, and child health. In particular, we view healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies as a nexus issue for global health today.

When girls are married in their early teen years and immediately pressured to become pregnant, there are serious health risks to both mother and any child she bears at such a young age. And when mothers in nations with poor nutrition and health systems become pregnant too soon (less than 2.5 years) after their previous birth, the health impact on both mother and child can be devastating. What's more, both scenarios can also limit education and life opportunities for both mother and child - which in turn can lead to the tragic scenarios of slavery.

There are over 220 million women around the world who say they want to delay their next pregnancy until a more opportune time, but they don't have the education, or the access to contraceptives or fertility-awareness methods, to do so.

One way our Faith-Based Coalition supports these women is by championing the protection of the U.S. programs for global maternal, newborn and child health, including healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies. Family Planning 2020, a global partnership of more than 20 governments that work with civil society, multi-lateral organizations, and private sector, and others, is leading the drive to get 120 million additional women access to these resources by 2020, so they can time and space their pregnancies in the way they consider best for their families.

When we empower women and couples with the ability to plan their families well, good things follow. Young women (including married ones) can stay in school rather than leaving due to an early pregnancy. Healthy mothers can go back to work to support their families, helping to avoid hunger and extreme poverty. Children can stay in school, improving their long-term outlook, rather than being looked to for immediate income for family survival.

With strong support from the U.S., family planning is one critical, yet overlooked, component to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty in developing nations worldwide. And by interrupting that cycle, America contributes toward the ambitious goal of ending modern slavery as well.

Let's recognize support for U.S. programs for global maternal, newborn and child health and family planning today as an important step in combatting slavery tomorrow.

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at the School of Public Policy at Central European University.

Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Hope Through Healing Hands. She also teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt School of Medicine.

Originally published in the Huffington Post.