A Gastronomical Virtual Experience: Enjoying the Taste of Food Without the Calories

Through a headset around the head and over the eyes, virtual reality can take us to computer-generated environments very different from the physical environment we’re in. Now, virtual reality technology is offering the food industry a new life. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, virtual reality can change the future of our dining experiences and make food tastier and healthier. Faith Lapidus narrates.

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Some Republicans Nervous NAFTA Talks Could Fail

Pro-trade Republicans in the U.S. Congress are growing worried that U.S. President Donald Trump may try to quit the NAFTA free trade deal entirely rather than negotiate a compromise that preserves its core benefits.

As a fifth round of talks to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked off in Mexico on Friday, several Republicans interviewed by Reuters expressed concerns that tough U.S. demands, including a five-year sunset clause and a U.S.-specific content rule, will sink the talks and lead to the deal’s collapse.

Business groups have warned of dire economic consequences, including millions of jobs lost as Mexican and Canadian tariffs snap back to their early 1990s levels.

“I think the administration is playing a pretty dangerous game with this sunset provision,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from eastern Pennsylvania.

He said putting NAFTA under threat of extinction every five years would make it difficult for companies in his district, ranging from chocolate giant Hershey Co to small family owned manufacturing firms, to invest in supply chains and manage global operations.

Hershey operates candy plants in Monterrey and Guadalajara, Mexico.

Lawmakers’ letter

Nearly 75 House of Representatives members signed a letter this week opposing U.S. proposals on automotive rules of origin, which would require 50 percent U.S. content in NAFTA-built vehicles and 85 percent regional content.

They warned that this would “eliminate the competitive advantages” that NAFTA brings to U.S. automakers or lead to a collapse of the trade pact.

Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who has long been a supporter of free trade deals, said he disagreed with the Trump approach of “trying to beat someone” in the NAFTA talks. Texas is the largest U.S. exporting state with nearly half of its $231 billion in exports last year headed to Mexico and Canada, according to Commerce Department data.

“We need to offer Mexico a fair deal. If we want them to take our cattle, we need to take their avocados,” Sessions said.

Still, congressional apprehension about Trump’s stance is far from unanimous. The signers were largely Republicans, with no Democrats from auto-intensive states such as Michigan and Ohio signing.

Democratic support

Some pro-labor Democrats have actually expressed support for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s tough approach.

“Some of those demands are in tune,” said Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

“We don’t want to blow it up, Republicans don’t want to blow it up. But we want substantial changes in the labor, the environmental, the currency, on how you come to an agreement when there’s a dispute, and on problems of origin.”

Farm state Republicans are especially concerned that a collapse of NAFTA would lead to the loss of crucial export markets in Mexico and Canada for corn, beef and other products.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Lighthizer in a recent meeting agreed that a withdrawal from NAFTA would be hard on U.S. agriculture, which has largely benefited from the trade pact.

U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico quintupled to about $41 billion in 2016 from about $9 billion in 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, according to U.S. Commerce Department data.

Grassley said, however, that Lighthizer’s approach was “taking everybody to the brink on these talks.”

Other Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to the talks.

Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said he was willing to give Trump “the benefit of the doubt” on NAFTA talks, adding that farmers and ranchers in his rural district were strong Trump supporters in the 2016 election.

“The president’s a practical fellow. When push comes to shove, he understands the base,” Lucas said.

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Kushner’s Lawyer Pushes Back on US Senate Committee Request

A lawyer for White House adviser Jared Kushner pushed back Friday after a Senate committee said he had not been fully forthcoming in its probe into Russian election interference.

 

Lawyer Abbe Lowell said Kushner encouraged others in President Donald Trump’s campaign to decline meetings with foreign people who “go back home and claim they have special access to gain importance for themselves.”

 

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote a letter to Kushner, who is Donald Trump’s son-in-law, on Thursday asking him to provide additional documents to the committee, including one sent to him involving WikiLeaks and a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite.”

 

The senators noted they have received documents from other campaign officials that were copied to or forwarded to Kushner, but which he did not produce. Those include “September 2016 email communications to Mr. Kushner concerning WikiLeaks.” It was revealed this week that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., corresponded with WikiLeaks that month and later sent an email to several Trump campaign advisers to tell them about it.

Lowell wrote Friday to Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. He said the email from Donald Trump Jr. referring to his contact with WikiLeaks was forwarded to Kushner, but he did not respond.

 

Apparently referring to the email that the senators called a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” Lowell said that was part of an email chain that included biographies of various individuals. Lowell wrote that “there is a reference to one of these people suggesting an idea that somewhere, sometime (before the words ‘Russia’ or ‘Putin’ were politically charged or relevant in the campaign), someone thought candidate Trump should visit Russia.”

 

Lowell goes on to quote Kushner’s response to that email: “Pass on this. A lot of people come claiming to carry messages. Very few we are able to verify. For now I think we decline such meetings. Most likely these people go home and claim they have special access to gain importance for themselves. Be careful.”

The senators’ request is part of the panel’s probe into the Russian election meddling and whether the Trump campaign was involved. The Judiciary committee is one of three congressional committees looking into the issue, along with the Senate and House intelligence panels. The committees have separately requested and received thousands of documents from people associated with the Trump campaign, and have interviewed dozens of individuals. Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller is also looking into the meddling.

 

In the letter to Kushner, the senators noted they had asked him to provide documents to, from, or copied to him “relating to” certain individuals of interest to investigators, but Kushner responded that no emails had been found in which those individuals were sent emails, received emails, or were copied on them.

 

Lowell replied that Kushner had provided the Judiciary panel with the same documents he had provided the intelligence panels, believing that would be enough to satisfy the Judiciary request.

 

The Senate and House intelligence committees interviewed Kushner in July. The Judiciary panel has also sought an interview with Kushner, but his lawyers offered to make the transcripts available from the other interviews instead, according to the letters. Grassley and Feinstein say those panels haven’t provided them with those transcripts, and ask Lowell to secure that access.

 

“I do not understand why these committees would not provide the transcripts to you, but we do not have those transcripts,” Lowell wrote, adding that it would be “duplicative” if the committees did not share their transcripts.

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Unions Take NAFTA Wage Fight to Mexican Senate

The head of Canada’s biggest private-sector union headed to Mexico’s Senate on Friday, promising to fight at the NAFTA trade pact talks for improved Mexican wages and free collective bargaining as a way of benefiting workers across North America.

The issue of tougher labor standards has emerged as a key sticking point in the talks to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has brought disparate groups of workers from across the region closer to U.S. populists.

“There will not be an agreement” until the Mexican team agrees to free collective bargaining, the elimination of so-called yellow unions that are dominated by employers, and fair wages for Mexican workers, Unifor President Jerry Dias said.

The event held in a side chamber of the Senate was organized by the umbrella organization Better Without Free Trade Agreements, which represents dozens of social organizations and unions.

Dias argued that low wages have not only hurt Mexican workers but have also prompted manufacturing jobs in Canada and the United States to leave for Mexico.

By including much tougher labor standards in an updated NAFTA, the issue could be dealt with head on, he said. “When you start talking about low wages, we can deal with that under the dispute mechanism as an unfair subsidy.”

The fifth round of talks NAFTA is being held in the upscale Camino Real hotel in Mexico City.

“What Mexico offers in this negotiation and to the rest of the world is cheap labor. That’s what Mexico puts on the table and how it presents itself as an attractive place for investments,” Senator Mario Delgado of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution told Reuters.

“It is a shame and it is unsustainable for Mexico. … Our salary policy is putting at risk the existence of the treaty,” said Delgado.

Mexican business leaders argue that integrating Mexico into North American supply chains has made the entire region more competitive. Recent studies have shown, however, that wages in Mexico have experienced significant downward pressure.

Given Mexico’s higher inflation rates, wages are now lower there in real terms than when NAFTA took effect, according to a report published in August by credit rating agency Moody’s.

While formally employed workers earn significantly more, the statutory minimum wage is a mere 80 pesos ($4.23) a day.

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Texas: Disaster Aid ‘Inadequate’; White House Replies: ‘Step Up’

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday criticized as “completely inadequate” the Trump administration’s $44 billion request to Congress for disaster relief in his hurricane-ravaged state and other areas hammered by storms. The White House shot back that Texas may want to foot more of the bill for its own recovery.

Abbott has lavished praise on the federal government since Hurricane Harvey killed more than 80 people, triggered historic flooding in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, and caused an estimated $180 billion in damage. On Friday, he refused to criticize President Donald Trump by name, but said his administration’s request “is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas, and I believe, does not live up to what the president wants to achieve.”

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott said at a news conference inside his Texas Capitol office. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

​White House bristles

A short time later in Washington, however, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to contradict that, suggesting that Texas hasn’t put up enough of its own money for Harvey recovery.

“We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process,” Sanders said. “We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

The request is Trump’s third since hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. If approved, it would bring the total appropriated for disaster relief this fall close to $100 billion, and that doesn’t include most of the money to rebuild Puerto Rico’s devastated housing stock and electric grid.

The request followed lobbying by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who pressed the White House for far more. There are sure to be attempts to add to the measure as it advances through the House and Senate.

 

“This request does not come close to what local officials say is needed,” said New York Rep. Nita Lowey, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Abbott complained that Congress approved more funding, more quickly to areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 “which was half the storm of what Hurricane Harvey was.”

“You can see that this falls short,” Abbott said. “Hopefully, this is just one of multiple steps along the pathway.”

​Cornyn vows a fight

Abbott has visited Washington repeatedly in recent weeks, lobbying for $61 billion in disaster relief he says his state needs just for infrastructure, including ambitious projects meant to combat future floods. Not only is Friday’s request far less than that, but Texas will have to share it, which didn’t sit so well with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s powerful majority whip.

“It’s really time for the federal government to live up to its responsibilities,” Cornyn said at the same Austin news conference.

He recalled that Puerto Rico’s governor requested more than $90 billion, just for his island’s recovery.

“Just imagine, given the size and scope of our great state, extrapolate that,” Cornyn said. “We’re not asking for that. We are asking to be treated fairly. And we intend to fight for that.”

Puerto Rico’s Rossello has requested $94 billion, including $18 billion to rebuild the island’s power grid and $31 billion for housing. The White House anticipates sending another request focused on the needs of the island territory but hasn’t indicated when that would be.

The Florida congressional delegation asked for $27 billion. 

At the same time, Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director asked lawmakers to consider $59 billion in spending cuts to pay for the aid, including $44 billion from benefit programs.

At the same event, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that $5 billion was being allocated to Texas in federal grants that will help meet the long term needs of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Harvey. But even that may be a relative drop in the bucket since Abbott has said that, ultimately, his state will likely seek more than $50 billion in federal housing funding alone.

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Pentagon Releases Base-by-base Sexual Assault Report Data

The U.S. military on Friday disclosed for the first time base-by-base data on sexual assault reports, showing a higher number of reports at big military installations like Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia as well as overseas hubs like South Korea.

Sexual assault in the military, which is defined as anything from groping to rape, is believed to be significantly higher than the number of reports. The Pentagon said it estimates that, in 2016, less than a third of service members who experienced a sexual assault reported it.

Still, that was an improvement in reporting from previous years, the Pentagon said.

According to the newly released data, a collection of U.S. bases in South Korea had a combined 211 reports of sexual assault while Norfolk had 270 reports of sexual assault in the 2016 fiscal year, which began in October 2015 and ended in September 2016. That is down slightly from 291 cases at Norfolk in 2015.

The Pentagon did not elaborate on the data but noted that the reports showed where a victim reported a sexual assault, not necessarily where the sexual assault occurred.

Sexual assault reports from other big bases in 2016 included: Fort Hood in Texas with 199 reports; Naval Base in San Diego, California, with 187 reports; Camp Lejeune in North Carolina with 169 reports; Camp Pendleton in California with 157 reports, and Fort Bragg in North Carolina with 146 reports.

The Pentagon announced earlier this year a record total of 6,172 sexual assault reports in 2016, compared with 6,082 the previous year. This was a sharp increase from 2012, when 3,604 cases were reported.

The U.S. military said it believes that a biannual anonymous survey provides a more accurate estimate of the number of sexual assaults. According to the latest survey, 14,900 service members experienced some kind of sexual assault in 2016, down from 20,300 in 2014.

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State Department Battles Criticism of Tillerson’s Management

The State Department is hitting back at the growing bipartisan criticism of Rex Tillerson’s leadership and accusations he is presiding over a debilitating brain drain of the nation’s diplomatic corps.

 

In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, the department said Tillerson’s reorganization plans aren’t crippling the agency as reports have claimed. Top ranks aren’t being intentionally gutted through attrition, mass retirements and buyouts, it said, and a planned 8 percent reduction of its nearly 75,000 employees had been mandated by the Office of Management and Budget and is proceeding under that order.

 

In the letter sent to Sen. Bob Corker late Thursday, the department said there are only 108 fewer foreign service officers now than in 2016. The tally is still 2,000 more than there were in 2008, it said.

 

It said a widely cited figure that 60 percent of diplomats at the highest level had left the foreign service since January is a “distortion” because only six people held the rank known as “career ambassador.” Two remain, it said. Since 1980, only from one to seven career ambassadors have ever served at the same time.

 

Nevertheless, the letter seems unlikely to stem the criticism of Tillerson. Critics also point to departures of senior and mid-level foreign service officers and a hiring freeze of entry level diplomats that has been relaxed only to take on about 100 new employees in the current budget year. That’s about a third of recent yearly intakes.

 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers also oppose Tillerson’s proposal to cut the department’s budget by nearly 30 percent, suggesting there will be rancorous exchanges on staffing levels in coming months.

 

The letter follows an intense week of criticism of Tillerson.

 

Since taking office, the former ExxonMobil CEO has been targeted by frequent attacks from Democrats, former diplomats and pundits on the left and the right. In recent days, Corker and a fellow prominent Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, joined the chorus.

Corker on Tuesday echoed comments of his committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, who spoke of “alarming” reports that America’s diplomatic corps is being decimated by the reorganization. Corker said the concerns were “bipartisan in nature” and lamented that a briefing about the reorganization with State Department officials had been “very unsatisfactory” and incomplete.

 

A day later, McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, wrote a letter with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen criticizing the department for management decisions “that threaten to undermine the long-term health and effectiveness of American diplomacy.”

 

The entire minority membership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee followed, writing to Tillerson to say they’re “profoundly concerned about what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks and the entire State Department with no apparent goal.”

 

The criticism followed a highly critical missive from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing U.S. diplomats.

 

Its president, Barbara Stephenson, likened senior staff reductions to a “decapitation” that would be met with public outcry if it had occurred in the military.

 

“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” she said.

The State Department feels the criticism is unfair. In its letter to Corker, the agency said there are only 20 fewer senior foreign service officers now than there were a year ago (1,048 compared with 1,068). This year’s retirements are five fewer than in 2016, it said. Buyouts to induce early retirement of more than 600 diplomats are consistent with a directive to reduce the federal workforce.

 

It said reorganization is a work in progress, appealing for patience as officials make the department “more efficient and effective within a sustainable budget.”

 

“A project such as this demands careful execution and we are committed to doing just that and notifying Congress as required,” the State Department said.

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US Senate Candidate Moore’s Wife Says ‘He Will Not Step Down’

The wife of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama said on Friday her husband would not end his campaign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, dismissing reports about his past behavior toward some women as political attacks.

“He will not step down,” Kayla Moore said at a news conference on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery. “He will not stop fighting for the people of Alabama.”

The former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice’s campaign has been in turmoil since the Washington Post published a story last week detailing the accounts of three women who claim Moore pursued them while they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

More women have since spoken out with allegations of their own.

Reuters has been unable to independently confirm any of the accusations.

Before the allegations came to light, Moore was heavily favored to defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the special election next month.

Two polls this week showed Moore now trailing Jones. Fox News released a poll on Thursday putting Jones ahead with 50 percent to 42 percent for Moore.

But Moore’s embattled candidacy also got a boost on Thursday, when the Alabama Republican Party said it would continue to support him, putting it at odds with Republican leaders in Washington who want him to withdraw.

Republican Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Friday told reporters she would vote for Moore, emphasizing the importance of keeping Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

Asked whether she believed the women accusing Moore of sexual improprieties or unwanted romantic overtures, Ivey said, “the timing is a little curious but at the same time I have no reason to disbelieve them.”

The White House has said President Donald Trump finds the allegations troubling and believes Moore should step aside if they are true.

White House legislative director Marc Short on Friday said Trump previously backed Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange, in the primary contest and that Moore’s explanations “so far have not been satisfactory.”

“At this point, we believe it is up to the people of Alabama to make a decision,” Short told CNN. “The president chose a different candidate.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, several women went public with accusations that Trump had in the past made unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate personal remarks about them.

Trump denied the accusations, accused rival Democrats and the media of a smear campaign, and went on to be elected president.

Kayla Moore noted that the Washington Post endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in last year’s election, accusing it of being part of a concerted effort to push back against anti-establishment conservative candidates.

“All of the very same people who were attacking President Trump are also attacking us,” she said.

The Post’s editorial board, which endorsed Clinton, works separately from the reporters and editors who work on news stories, as is common at most newspapers.

 

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UN Panel Agrees to Move Ahead With Debate on ‘Killer Robots’

A U.N. panel agreed Friday to move ahead with talks to define and possibly set limits on weapons that can kill without human involvement, as human rights groups said governments are moving too slowly to keep up with advances in artificial intelligence that could put computers in control one day.

Advocacy groups warned about the threats posed by such “killer robots” and aired a chilling video illustrating their possible uses on the sidelines of the first formal U.N. meeting of government experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems this week. More than 80 countries took part.

Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India, who chaired the gathering, said participants plan to meet again in 2018. He said ideas discussed this week included the creation of legally binding instrument, a code of conduct, or a technology review process.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an umbrella group of advocacy groups, says 22 countries support a ban of the weapons and the list is growing. Human Rights Watch, one of its members, called for an agreement to regulate them by the end of 2019 — admittedly a long shot.

The meeting falls under the U.N.’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons — also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention — a 37-year old agreement that has set limits on the use of arms and explosives like mines, blinding laser weapons and booby traps over the years.

The group operates by consensus, so the least ambitious goals are likely to prevail, and countries including Russia and Israel have firmly staked out opposition to any formal ban. The United States has taken a go-slow approach, rights groups say.

U.N. officials say in theory, fully autonomous, computer-controlled weapons don’t exist yet, but defining exactly what killer robots are and how much human interaction is involved was a key focus of the meeting. The United States argued that it was “premature” to establish a definition.

Dramatic depictions

The concept alone stirs the imagination and fears, as dramatized in Hollywood futuristic or science-fiction films that have depicted uncontrolled robots deciding on their own about firing weapons and killing people.

Gill played down such concerns.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have news for you: The robots are not taking over the world. So that is good news, humans are still in charge. … We have to be careful in not emotionalizing or dramatizing this issue,” he told reporters Friday.

The United States, in comments presented, said autonomous weapons could help improve guidance of missiles and bombs against military targets, thereby “reducing the likelihood of inadvertently striking civilians.” Autonomous defensive systems could help intercept enemy projectiles, one U.S. text said.

Some top academics like Stephen Hawking, technology experts such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and human rights groups have warned about the threats posed by artificial intelligence, amid concerns that it might one day control such systems — and perhaps sooner rather than later.

“The bottom line is that governments are not moving fast enough,” said Steven Goose, executive director of arms at Human Rights Watch. He said a treaty by the end of 2019 is “the kind of timeline we think this issue demands.”

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How Much Is a Life Worth, Ask Activists Fighting Slavery?

From $7 for a Rohingya refugee to $750 for a North Korean “slave wife,” human rights activists have voiced concerns that it is becoming increasingly easy to enslave another human being as the cost plummets.

The average modern-day slave is sold for $90-100 compared to the equivalent of $40,000 some 200 years ago, said Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at Britain’s University of Nottingham.

“There has been a collapse in the price of slaves over the last 50 years,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in London, which focuses on women’s empowerment and modern slavery.

‘Beasts of burden’

Pointing to a photo of boys hauling rocks in Nepal “like beasts of burden,” he said their parents would have sold them for $5-$10. Children are so cheap that if they get injured or fall in a ravine their slave master abandons them, Bales said.

“They understand it’s less expensive to acquire a new child than to call a doctor,” he added.

Bales attributed the fall in price to the population explosion which had “glutted the world with potentially enslavable people.”

40 million people trapped

Worldwide, about 40 million people were estimated to be trapped as slaves in 2016, mostly women and girls, in forced labor, sexual exploitation and forced marriages, with global trafficking estimated to raise $150 billion in profits a year.

North Korean defector Jihyun Park told how she was trafficked to China where she was sold for 5000 yuan ($750) to an alcoholic, violent farmer.

“He said I’ve paid for you so you must work. I spent six years as his slave,” Park said.

Thousands of North Korean women are believed to have been trafficked as wives and sex workers inside China where the one-child policy has skewed the gender ratio.

Natural disasters force issue

 In Bangladesh, Asif Saleh, of development agency BRAC, said Rohingya refugee women fleeing Myanmar and arriving in Bangladesh were being sold for as little as 5 pounds ($6.60).

Aid agencies say traffickers often exploit crises to prey on vulnerable people separated from their families and communities.

Nepalese nun and kung fu teacher Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, who helps families displaced by the country’s 2015 earthquake, told the conference that people were selling their daughters, sisters and mothers to traffickers after the disaster in order to rebuild their homes.

“Some men just see girls as a bunch of money,” she said.

In northern Kenya’s pastoralist region, lawyer Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan said child brides as young as nine were sold for eight cows or eight camels — worth about $800.

“Girls become commodities and they have no voice, no one asks what the girl wants,” said Adan, who uses football to help tackle child marriage and female genital mutilation.

But it is not just rich countries where girls are sold off.

Sarah, forced into prostitution as a child in Britain, said the gang who groomed her said she would have to have sex every day until she had paid off a “debt” of 75,000 pounds.

“They told me I belonged to them and until my debt was cleared I had to work for them,” she said.

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