It's hard for most of us to imagine that slavery still exists. But that is the stark message which emerges from the stories in today's Not For Sale series, a joint project by the Herald and World Vision.

The series is tackling one of world's deepest problems - the exploitation of girls through forced labour, prostitution, sex trafficking and early marriage against their will.

The broad figures indicate the scale of the problem. There are 152 million children in work around the world.

Around 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year - one every two seconds - and 1.2 million children are trafficked every year.

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The problem is particularly severe in several Asian countries, including India and Myanmar, where Newstalk ZB host Kerre McIvor and Herald visual journalist Mike Scott travelled with World Vision to investigate the issue.

There they talked to girls and their families and discovered what it feels like to struggle against these obstacles every day.

Their stories paint a picture which is often confronting, sometimes depressing but ultimately hopeful.

McIvor refers to a lightbulb moment in her interview with Sapna, a 14-year-old girl in Agra who works for 12 to 14 hours a day soldering clasps on to anklets.

Her father was a stone craftsman, who became too sick to work after years of breathing in fine dust while he made lucky elephants for tourists.

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Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott
Prabha, 19, was married at 16 in an arranged union. The legal age for marriage in India is 18. Photo / Mike Scott

Sapna was a bright student at school and wanted to become a teacher. But now that father is sick, she has to do this work so her family can survive.

She gets paid 0.6 cents for each clasp.

McIvor recalls her reaction was to offer encouragement, brightly telling Sapna that she didn't make it to university until she was in her 30s, so maybe the Indian girl's luck would change. Understandably Sapna looked incredulous. How could her circumstances change?

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And, as McIvor told a campaign launch audience in Auckland yesterday, who was this crazy foreign woman who wandered into her life with no understanding of her economic reality and false promises of hope?

Many New Zealanders visiting India will have similar experiences. Offering hope seems futile, almost cruel, when the barriers to advancement are so overwhelming.

But in this case, there is hope after all. For about $400, Sapna's mother could set up a grocery store. She would get half the money up front and the rest later if the store turns a profit.

It's not exactly an escape route from poverty but it offers Sapna a slim chance of
getting an education - which would be the best long term hope for her family as well.

Encouragingly many families were aware of this. Most poor parents who marry off their daughters or forbid them to go to school, do so because they are desperate for money.

It's easy to criticise such behaviour from a distance as sexist and wrong, but much more effective to provide a financial leg-up so these families feel confident enough to give their daughters a chance.

By donating to the Not For Sale campaign, New Zealanders can do just that.

To donate to the Not for Sale campaign go to World Vision