January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, so in honor of this I decided to write a post to draw awareness to the human rights tragedy of trafficking that is estimated to impact millions of children and teens worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
For most people living in the U.S., child trafficking can feel like something that happens far away, and as a result is an issue that average citizens usually do nothing about. “Maybe I read something or see something in the news and say ‘God that’s awful’…but then I go back to my life and I don’t even think about it.” said one friend when I mentioned the topic. However, not only have cases been reported in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Territories, but we may unknowingly be contributing to child exploitation worldwide through our day-to-day choices. Recently I was speaking with Agnes Igoye, Uganda’s Deputy National Coordinator of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Department, and she opened my eyes as to the importance of conscious awareness. “You love chocolate, but are you sure no child is being exploited in the fields? You want cheap deals and high quality [clothing, electronics and so forth]….but is somebody else paying the price?”
The story of Not For Sale President and Co-Founder, David Batstone, is testimony to the fact that child trafficking and exploitation can take place around us at any moment. David talks about how he used to notice the teen waiters at one of his favorite restaurants in San Francisco Bay Area and simply assumed they were extended family members of the owners. Until one morning when he read in the paper that his local restaurant was
actually the hub for a human trafficking ring that had brought hundreds of children into the US for forced labor. The teens who waited on David and his wife were not only forced to work in the restaurant, but in fruit and vegetable fields, construction sites and brothels.
My Life My Choice is a Boston based organization devoted to preventing the commercial sexual exploitation of adolescents through survivor-led programs. In 2016 they worked with 156 at-risk youth in Massachusetts, 65% who had already been exploited and 18% who were suspected of having been exploited, with some as young as 12 years old. I spoke with Ann Wilkinson, their Director of Mentoring Services, about how technology now allows sexual exploitation to more easily fly under the radar, hidden from society. “When I was a youth, the girls who were being exploited were visible and on the streets. Now, [the dealings are online and] the girls are in a hotel room.” Online marketplaces allow transactions for sex involving children to be arranged at low risk, the internet has enable the broad distribution of pornography that exploits children, and many children are first enticed into prostitution via the web. Wilkinson emphasized the importance of knowing the red flags and being educated on the signs of exploitation as a key step towards fighting it. She spoke about the fact that our society has evolved to become more isolated as the stress and pace of day-to-day life has continued to increase, and how as a result we have more of a tendency to ‘mind our own business’. When it comes to human trafficking and fundamental human rights though, it is our business.
How can we help fight this type of child slavery and trafficking? I believe there are 4 things everyone can—and for the sake of the children must—do:
1. Get Informed: “The more you educate yourself, the more you realize we can all do something” says Igoye. Change begins with first recognizing that there is a problem and understanding the many ways human trafficking may touch our communities, our lives, and the products we consume. The US Department of Labor maintains a user-friendly, interactive website which lists items they have reason to believe were produced by children. Many of the items listed are likely to be in the average household. Ask questions—Are the strawberries I’m about to buy on the list? Could this soccer ball have been produced by a child?—and use the information to make more conscious choices. Watch the hard-to-watch documentaries such as CNN’s Special Report titled “Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking” for factual information on sex trafficking in the US, or the film “I Am Jane Doe” about to be released this February which chronicles the story and fight of several parents with middle-school children who were victims of sex trafficking on Backpage.com. The website recently shut down their adult ad section in response to government and community pressure.
2.Pay Attention: The David Batstone story is a perfect example of how human trafficking can be happening right in front of us without our even being aware. In addition to asking questions about the products we consume, noticing what is happening around you could potentially help save someone from a life of slavery and exploitation. CNN recently wrote an article titled “7 ways to spot that someone is being trafficked” for airline travelers, and the US Department of Education has a list of warning signs that could indicate a child is a victim of sex or labor trafficking. Understand the indicators and stay alert to what you are seeing in your day-to-day life.
3. Raise Awareness: Bringing attention to the fact that human trafficking and slavery still widely exist today is an important step towards fighting it. A lack of awareness is part of what allows trafficking to flourish, and while it may look different that the slavery that was present in the US prior to the passage of the 13th amendment, it is still sadly very much alive in 2017. Share what you learn with friends, family and your social networks. We can all do our part towards bringing this important issue to the forefront of society’s awareness.
4. Support Organizations that are Fighting Human Trafficking: While the obvious top-of-mind way to support these organizations is through philanthropy, there many other creative ways for concerned citizens to help. Igoye points out that support can come simply by using your
talents. “It can be through writing, singing, talking.” Other ways to get involved include lobbying and writing letters or seeking out volunteer opportunities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline directory can help you identify organizations operating in your area.
I am sure we can all agree that we want to live in a world where children and adults alike have free choice about their livelihoods. For all of us, making a few simple changes can bring us closer to that goal.