Not only was a day last week dedicated to human trafficking awareness, but January was also declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This month, President Obama is urging Americans to “educate themselves about all forms of modern slavery.”
There’s a lot of discussion about slavery these days — we’re commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, plus the release of movies like Lincoln and Django Unchained. But a different kind of slavery also draws our attention — human trafficking. According to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, modern-day slavery involves “exploitation through fraud, force or coercion; physical abuse and/or psychological intimidation; and victims are not readily able to free themselves from their situation.” Human trafficking is a worldwide, multibillion dollar enterprise that affects 12–27 million people annually.
A recent Google Hangout on slavery and human trafficking featured Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate Somaly Mam, New York City-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) founder Rachel Lloyd, and New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof. The panel, moderated by Luke Blocher from the Freedom Center, discussed the causes and consequences of domestic and international sex trafficking, as well as the steps we can all take to address this problem.
Mam, who was profiled in last fall’s documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is the founder of AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations). The organization fights against the trafficking of women and children for sex slavery and works to secure victims’ rights, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Mam, a survivor of sex trafficking, understands exactly what’s needed to heal survivors. She noted during the Hangout that “you can’t just go into brothels and get the women — you have to empower them, be with them, and listen to them. Don’t look at them as victims but as human beings.” As a survivor, she understands that “it’s not easy to escape, stay out, to heal.” But once the survivors do, AFESIP provides them with skills training, since most have no education. When asked about the future, Mam has hope. She sees “students getting involved, pop stars, more social media.” This exposure has given more people a chance to understand the issue and gives survivors a voice.
GEMS founder Lloyd indicated that “100,000–300,000 young people are at risk for commercial exploitation each year.” And she reminds us that this is happening in our neighborhoods, not just in other countries. Unfortunately, the lack of attention to the issue of human trafficking reflects a similar neglect of those whom it impacts most: low-income people, people of color, and people in the juvenile justice system — those who are not “high on anybody’s priority list.” Lloyd supports the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which encourages decriminalization of survivors so that they are “not prosecuted as criminals but as people in need of services when they are picked up at the age of 12 for prostitution.” But she noted, “We can’t legislate or prosecute our way out of it.” She encourages people to get educated, find out what’s happening locally, and get involved — tutor, mentor, volunteer — because ending trafficking is more than “driving around in a van at night scooping up and rescuing girls.”
Kristof noted that “traffickers control the girls the same way around the world, whether it’s New York or Cambodia.” This control can be psychological or physical. The past strategic mistake of “people grabbing the girls instead of the pimps has begun to change but must change even more.” He stressed the importance of the empowerment of girls and education: “Just 1 percent of what we spent on the Afghan and Iraq wars would eliminate the primary education gap and end global illiteracy.” Education is critical since the “pimp model relies on illiterate girls.” Kristof, like Mam, acknowledged that there has been progress because the issue has gotten more attention, and “naming and shaming” has worked, since “the U.S. annual trafficking report does embarrass some governments.”
And speaking of pimps, all of the panelists agreed that men (and boys) need to be a part of the solution. Lloyd wants us to “socialize boys and young men differently, so that they know that they don’t have the right to purchase other human beings.” Kristof stressed the importance of “john school” to give men “a day in which they hear from survivors what trafficking is really like.” Mam simply stated that “we need to have men and boys involved and educate them.”
If you missed the Hangout, I encourage you to watch it (above).
Wondering what else you can do to help?