Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sex Trafficking: An Introduction

Human trafficking is an absolute evil. It destroys families, inflicts unimaginable pain and suffering on its victims, and is a practice that needs to be prevented. Sex trafficking is particularly malicious as it primarily coerces young girls -- as young as 4 -- into a world that they could never imagine. In this world, these children's bodies are no longer under their own control -- it is abused, misused, mutilated. The physical and emotional toll of sex work can weaken even the greatest of spirits. 

Several articles by Nicholas Kristof and Josh Ruxin have really opened my eyes to the challenges, controversies, and monstrous tactics used to subdue and control girls who have been trafficked for sex work. Ruxin, a public health professional and aid worker who has been living in Rwanda for the past few years, writes in Kristof's blog pretty regularly -- his latest piece, "Asia is Not Alone: Sex Tourism in Mombasa" is an honest account of Ruxin's return to Mombasa, Kenya, and his shock at the extent of sex work and child prostitution in the city. 

Kristof, an Op-Ed contributor to the New York Times, recently reported on his trip to brothels in Cambodia and the horrors he saw inflicted in a young, rebellious, child sex worker named Long Pross. The article titled, "If This Isn't Slavery, What Is?" is a brilliant, heart-wrenching piece. Thankfully, there are places like the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia that help to fight sexual slavery, and others like it in centers of trafficking around the world. In addition to providing treatment, recovery, and alternative work opportunities for girls trafficked into sex work -- a great challenge in itself -- there is an enormous need to prevent this practice in the first place. 

International Justice Mission is an organization committed to bringing justice in circumstances of slavery and human trafficking in countries with incredibly dysfunctional judicial and policing systems. The New Yorker published an article on the work of IJM's founder, Gary Haugen,  onJanuary 19, 2009, titled "The Enforcer: A Christian Lawyer's Global Crusade". I see the work of IJM as providing rescue to those currently enslaved world-wide as well as creating a message of caution for those who would seek to control and destroy the lives of others. Perhaps this will help prevent future abuse in these communities.

But there is more that can and must be done: 
  • to identify the roots of trafficking -- the social and historical conditions, cultural and familial values, and a lack of awareness of trafficking tactics
  • to breakdown the pathways through which trafficking comes to be -- the lack of political will, the absence of strong justice systems
  • To recognize of the problem of demand -- that sex trafficking is driven by issues of male sexuality, gender supremacy, power, and control. 
The US has committed millions of dollars over the past 10 years to combat human trafficking.  In December, 2008 the US reauthorized the "Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, HR7311. Additionally, advocacy efforts to implore President Obama to make anti-trafficking efforts in the US a priority are under way (you can sign and electronically send a letter to President Obama here at the IJM website). The number of sex workers in the US is unknown, government sources estimated it to be around 15,000 in 2004 according to a 2007 article on the issue.

There are so many other resources on sex trafficking available online through any Google search. However, more research is needed, especially as the practice grows and expands to new regions. I am privileged to be a part of some trafficking work that is going on at Harvard School of Public Health. We hope to better understand the conditions from which these girls are trafficked, how they enter sex work, their living and work conditions, and how these impact their health and well-being. This work aims to inform service providers and other organizations who are working to prevent sexual slavery worldwide. Here is an example of some of the work our research team is doing.

Much more on this topic to come!

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