“I am afraid to go home. My father’s friends used to rape me weekly and said if I told anyone they would bring shame to my family.” This statement was made by a teenage girl I interviewed in India recently as part of my research into rehabilitation processes for survivors of sex trafficking. To escape this abusive home situation, she ran away, and in the process was trafficked from Bangladesh to India. She spent two years in a brothel before being rescued by Rescue Foundation. She was 14 years old.
It is estimated that 27 million slaves are being held worldwide, with the most common form being sexual exploitation of women and girls, according to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report for 2012. International Women’s Day marks a time to celebrate the victories of women’s rights across the world, but it is also a call to act together against sex trafficking – around the world and in the United States.
For close to two years, I saw the reality of sex trafficking first hand as I lived in India and worked with an organization that rescued girls from commercial sexual exploitation. When I moved to Harrisburg, Penn. to work at Messiah College, I was surprised to hear that a similar subculture existed in my own backyard. Carlisle, near Harrisburg, is one of the bigger hubs for trafficking in the East Coast of the United States due to a stretch of trucker motels and gas stations off of main highways.
What can be done about this global and complex problem? Here are three key ways that you can make a difference.
1. Get educated
Contact organizations like Polaris Project or the National Research Consortium for Commercial Sexual Exploitation for more information about trafficking issues in your area, and guidance for what is needed to help.
Learn about the factors that foster vulnerability to trafficking such as poverty, unsafe migration, subcultures of gender discrimination, lack of education, demand, and lack of law enforcement. Investigate reputable organizations like International Justice Mission or GEMS, examine their approaches to combat trafficking, and consider volunteering or supporting their interventions.
2. Get involved
There are many organizations that can suggest ways to get involved in the fight against sex trafficking, both globally and locally. But sometimes, an individual’s best help is to be alert and ask questions.
Eldon Fry, campus minister for Messiah College, told me this story: “We met a person at Harrisburg International Airport from the Philippines via Qatar headed for Pittsburgh. It sounded fishy so we intervened, and she was ultimately rescued by Homeland Security. We have stayed connected, and she is receiving support from the Polaris Project and is waiting for trial against her “employer,” who was poised to traffick her.”
Ashley Sheaffer, a faculty member at Messiah College, monitors Craigslist for Harrisburg, Carlisle, and Philadelphia for advertisements that might be associated with trafficking and reports them to partner organizations that work with law enforcement to rescue women who have been trafficked.
These are two examples of people in ordinary communities doing their part in the fight against sex trafficking.
3. Organize and take action
If you see genuine needs that you can help with that are not being covered by existing services, organize a team and a strategy with clear objectives. Your strategy should include partnerships with reputable organizations locally or globally to strengthen and coordinate interventions.
Approaches can include intervening in areas where women are trafficked from, through programs like education and micro-economic development to empower vulnerable populations and help with survivor re-integration. Other approaches can include intervening in areas where women are trafficked to, through services like raising awareness, education, advocacy, housing, counseling, legal assistance, and job training.
Reflect regularly on what is working, what is not working, and why. Build in a feedback system to partner organizations for continual learning, guidance, and accountability.”
Triveni Acharya, winner of the 2008 Woman of Peace Award and president of Rescue Foundation told me, “Sex trafficking, or modern day slavery, is not only a criminal justice issue, but a human rights issue. It prevents women the freedom to make their own decisions, which is their fundamental right.” On International Women’s Day – and beyond – we should remember that we can all play a part in combating the sex trafficking that strips women of those rights.