The Viral Intersection of Sex Trafficking and #SaveTheChildren

by Sumaira Quraishi

The first images that come to mind when you hear the words “human trafficking” usually include ones from popular media where the victims, typically young and wealthy individuals, are miraculously saved soon after they go missing by well-connected family members in action-packed scenes. Often, the savior is glamorized, and the victim is portrayed as an Icarus-like figure who flew too close to the sun and fell to their demise by being prideful and overexcited. This representation of human trafficking victims is wholly inaccurate in that anyone of any race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background can end up being trafficked against their will and a quick rescue is challenging to come by.

Image shows a person writing the word freedoms using chalk on a concrete staircase.
Chalking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 2015. Source: University of Essex, Creative Commons.

What is Human Trafficking and Why Should You Care

According to the United States Department of Homeland security, “human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” The act of being trafficked is complex, with many illicit systems in place to ensure trafficked people remain shackled, silent, and subservient. Although there are many misconceptions about the process of trafficking a human being such as the thought that people are kidnapped against their will and always take opportunities to escape when presented with one, these beliefs are not based in fact. Victims are sometimes coerced by human traffickers or slave traders through violent actions, manipulative tactics, false pretenses, and fake relationships. These situations leave individuals feeling trapped with their captors and they may not feel like anyone can help them. Unlike the romanticized portrayals of rescues from drug dens and slave auctions found in movies, the struggles of people who have had their liberty forcibly taken away are not so easy to resolve by arresting one key individual who runs an entire illegal enterprise, thereby leaving a collapsing system from the top-down. 

The violation of a person’s right to liberty and the trauma they face while in forced labor or sex trafficking environments are not the only dangers of human trafficking. The United States Department of State outlines multiple ways human trafficking harms not just those who are trafficked, but the nation as a whole in the following ways: human trafficking is a national security risk, it interferes with global markets, and it funnels currency into the hands of criminals. The perception of human trafficking being something that is not the general population’s problem until and unless it comes knocking on your doorstep leaves you vulnerable to manipulation, just like the millions who were manipulated into believing a QAnon trafficking conspiracy theory in July of 2020.

Image shows the flag of conspiracy theorist group QAnon flying in the wind in front of a building.
QAnon at Virginia 2nd Amendment Rally (2020 Jan). Source: Anthony Crider, Creative Commons.

Misinformation and Misunderstandings

A distorted view of human trafficking and the lack of knowledge about how people are controlled by human traffickers led to social media outcry from people around the world when #SaveTheChildren began trending in early July of 2022. Internet users on all platforms from Facebook to Reddit to Instagram and Twitter began rallying against Wayfair for allegedly allowing human traffickers to sell kidnapped children disguised as cabinet and pillow listings on the Wayfair website. To start, the entire affair was part of a conspiracy theory perpetuated by the QAnon conspiracy group that was made viral via an internet user who tweeted a screenshot of expensive storage cabinets with non-generic female names like “Alyvia Storage Cabinet” under the pseudonym Amazing Polly in June of 2020. Polly’s tweet was then circulated by QAnon, of which she is a member, and soon gained traction outside of the far-right political group, trending on social media platforms the following month after the initial tweet was posted.

On the surface, rapid dissemination of information about a supposed human trafficking front is a good thing, however, in this case, the trafficking front allegation turned out to be false on all counts, but by the time the investigation was over, misinformation had been flooding the timelines of millions of people for days. People rallied against Wayfair and demanded justice for the children whose names appeared on listings, leading to an upset of many lives overnight since some of the “missing” children had been at home recovering for months, or years, leaving them living in fear as they watched their personal information circulating online. In this case, well-intentioned public outcry overtaxed Polaris, the nonprofit in charge of the National Human Trafficking Hotline in that connects victims of human trafficking to support resources in America, and made it difficult for the organization to help real victims in need. 

Trending stories that go through the social media cycle and lose coverage once they are deemed unmarketable make it hard to trust what you see online, especially if delivered by what you believe are reliable sources and individuals. Knowing what to believe and when to be skeptical is essential to protect yourself from having the wool pulled over your eyes, making you lose sight of any hidden agendas that may be pushed through viral stories. In actuality, the children in the Wayfair listings had their names chosen by an algorithm to differentiate industrial products, and a glitch led to surges in the prices of some pillows. 

Spotting A Fake Story

While it is disheartening to not have the truth of the Wayfair matter broadcasted as far and wide as misinformation about the case was, leaving many people still believing in a lie, there are almost 25 million victims of human trafficking in the world at any given moment who have been ripped away from any possibility of normal life and may never escape their new, harrowing situation. Traffickers profit from this exploitation of individuals, whether it be sex trafficking, forced labor, or the sale of people to others. Human trafficking may seem like an issue so far out of sight to the everyday person living comfortably in a wealthy country, but the reality is human trafficking could be happening to anyone anywhere in the world. Human traffickers don’t solely target subpopulations shunned by traditional politics, and everyone should remain aware of this danger. The lives of the children whose pictures were circulated around the world during the Wayfair scandal had their lives overturned by well-meaning people who didn’t look closely enough at facts and ended up buying into fiction, taking away dozens of people’s sense of safety and leaving them vulnerable to harm.

Image shows a black-and-white photograph of a press conference with people sitting around a circular table.
Press Conference on Declaration of Human Rights. Source: United Nations Photo, Creative Commons.

It can seem hopeless to think about how you could help a victim of human trafficking who might seem out of reach, but what we can learn from the Wayfair event is to keep in mind that you should always look for facts and not take frenzy-inducing headlines at face value. Remaining questioning until presented with concrete evidence will help limit the spread of misinformation and save resources from being wasted on fake breaking news stories.

If you want more information on how human rights are defined and protected, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created at a United Nations assembly in 1948 to outline globally recognized rights and is a great starting point on the topic.

The Trafficking of Migrants by American Political Leaders

 

Picture of the famous Ellis Island, where many immigrants made their entrance to America
Source: Wikimedia commons found on Yahoo Images; An image of Ellis Island, the place of entry for many immigrants wishing to enter into America

The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.

Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.

A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking

I wanted to include this image because it is inclusive of what human trafficking entails
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a person in distress made up of multiple words and phrases relating to human trafficking. These are just some of the realities people who are trafficked face

So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.

What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?

I wanted to include this image to show that the UDHR protects people from being trafficked
Source: Yahoo Images; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights details in Article 4, that all persons are protected from being trafficked, forced into labor, or other forced actions.

Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.

Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States

I wanted to include this image because most humans who are trafficked are done so for two reasons: labor or sexual exploitation
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of migrant workers in the field. Many of the immigrants who were trafficked by Abbott and DeSantis were coerced, with false promises of new opportunities.

The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.

Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.

So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?

Although this is not an image from the recent trafficking incidents, I wanted to include an image of what it looks like when community members come together to help migrants out.
Source: Marty Graham via Yahoo Images; An image of a community coming together to help with the medical needs of the migrant population

Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.

If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.

Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Source: found via Yahoo Images Public Domain

Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.

What now?

So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.

Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.

The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Anti-Trafficking Day on November 18

It has been estimated that each year 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders. November 18 was established as Anti-trafficking day by the European parliament. This day is used as an opportunity to spread and raise awareness to prevent and combat human trafficking. Human trafficking is a “crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services or to engage in commercial sex acts.” Any person can be a victim of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a “global problem and one of the world’s most shameful crimes.” It affects the lives of millions while also “robbing them of their dignity.” The most known form of trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but many other victims are trafficked for the purpose of forced labor, domestic slavery, child begging, or the removal of their organs. Every country is affected by human trafficking, it is important to understand why and how this happens, and the ways to prevent it or recognize the signs.

What is Human Trafficking?

There is no single profile or defining characteristics of a trafficking victim. Victims include men, women, and children from any age and any background. Traffickers are known to often prey on individuals that come from low socioeconomic statuses. They target victims who are poor, vulnerable, in search for a better life, or are living in an unsafe or unstable situation. Trafficking victims are misled by “false promises of love, a good job, or a stable life.” They are forced into scenarios where they are forced to work under terrible conditions with little to no pay. In Birmingham, Alabama, human trafficking is a major issue. The interstate I-20 is the “most heavily trafficked stretch of interstate in the U.S.” The 140-mile road between Birmingham and Atlanta is been known as the ‘sex trafficking superhighway.’ Additionally, the intersection of I-20, I-59, and I-65 makes the city of Birmingham a central exchange for trafficking activity.

Graphic explaining what human trafficking is in the United States
Yahoo Images

Traffickers use different methods and resources to get their victims. Physical force, threats, psychological manipulation are mostly used. Newsome Law points out that there are two general ways traffickers are able to attain victims. First, victims are lured in. Traffickers will go to the lengths to “put up a ruse that their intended victim buys into.” They will make false promises, present desired relationships, large paycheck, or another prize that will seem worthwhile. These prizes are fake, they are just used to gain attraction and attention. In some cases, it’s found that the trafficker will play along to make it believable until they have the victim with them. Secondly, another way victims are recruited is through force and coercion. Some traffickers will use threats of physical harm or actually use physical violence to get their victims. They will use weapons of physical restraints to grab the victim off the street. Tactics of threats, violence, drugging are very commonly used with either method whether they are trying to capture the victim or when they already have the victim.

Who is most at risk?

Human trafficking is important for an array of reasons. First, in the United States, some of the most vulnerable populations include people within marginalized groups. These include “American Indian/Alaska Native communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, individuals with disabilities, undocumented migrants, runaway and homeless youth, temporary guest-workers, and low-income individuals.” These conditions make these communities and individuals more at risk than they already are.

As pointed out, there is not a clear picture of who and what type of person is most at risk. Human trafficking can happen to anyone, but there are some who are more vulnerable than others.

An article by BhamNow suggested several risk factors:

  • Those involved in the DHR system
  • Those placed in foster or group homes
  • Those with limited adult supervision
  • Those with a history of trauma (including being taken from your own home which is traumatic)
  • Those with a history of sexual and/or physical abuse
  • Runaways / homeless youth
  • Those suffering from substance abuse or with a family history of substance abuse
  • Young women who learn that their body is something they can use for money
  • Young men who are taught not to talk about abuse
  • Queer and trans youth are also vulnerable because they often experience rejection by their families, churches, schools, and communities
A woman being trafficked
Yahoo Images

What is being done to limit it

With human trafficking being a global problem, many countries and organizations have been developing tactics to prevent and protect victims from being trafficked, while also prosecuting those who traffic. In 2017, the Department of State and Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development handles a total of 120 international counter-human-trafficking projects among 40 countries. Their projects had three goals: to prevent, protect, and prosecute. They prevented trafficking through public awareness, outreach, education, and advocacy campaigns. They protected and assisted victims “by providing shelters as well as health, psychological, legal, and vocational services. Lastly, they prosecuted human trafficking by providing resources such as training and technical assistance for police, prosecutors, and judges.

Other organizations such as the United Nations (UN) uses similar tactics to prevent, protect, and prosecute when trying to limit human trafficking. The UN started a global project called Start Freedom. This project aims to “engage and raise awareness among young people.” It empowers young people to know the signs of human trafficking and how they can prevent it from happening to them. Both projects have a common conclusion that the best way to avoid being trafficked is through education and knowing the signs.

What can we do?

It is vital to spread awareness and learn about all the risks involving human trafficking and what to do if you are being trafficked or have reason to believe someone is being trafficked.

Signs of Human Trafficking:

The National Human Trafficking Hotline provides a list to recognize if you are being trafficked or if you believe someone else is being trafficked.

How traffickers Lure people in:

  • A would-be employer refuses to give workers a signed contract or asks them to sign a contract in a language they can’t read.
  • A would-be employer collects fees from a potential worker for the “opportunity” to work in a particular job.
  • A friend, family member, co-worker, or student is newly showered with gifts or money or otherwise becomes involved in an overwhelming, fast-moving, and asymmetric (e.g., large difference in age or financial status) romantic relationship.
  • A friend, family member, or student is a frequent runaway and maybe staying with someone who is not their parent or guardian.
  • A family member, friend, co-worker, or student is developing a relationship that seems too close with someone they know solely on social media.
  • A family member, friend, or student lives with a parent or guardian and shows signs of abuse.
  • A family member, friend, or co-worker is offered a job opportunity that seems too good to be true.
  • A family member, friend, or co-worker is recruited for an opportunity that requires them to move far away, but their recruiter or prospective employer avoids answering their questions or is reluctant to provide detailed information about the job.

Recognizing Labor Trafficking:

  • Feel pressured by their employer to stay in a job or situation they want to leave
  • Owe money to an employer or recruiter or are not being paid what they were promised or are owed
  • Do not have control of their passport or other identity documents
  • Are living and working in isolated conditions, largely cut off from interaction with others or support systems
  • Appear to be monitored by another person when talking or interacting with others
  • Are being threatened by their boss with deportation or other harm
  • Are working in dangerous conditions without proper safety gear, training, adequate breaks, or other protections
  • Are living in dangerous, overcrowded, or inhumane conditions provided by an employer

Recognizing Sex Trafficking:

  • Want to stop participating in commercial sex but feel scared or unable to leave the situation.
  • Disclose that they were reluctant to engage in commercial sex but that someone pressured them into it.
  • Live where they work or are transported by guards between home and workplace.
  • Are children who live with or are dependent on a family member with a substance use problem or who is abusive.
  • Have a “pimp” or “manager” in the commercial sex industry.
  • Work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as a strip club, illicit cantina, go-go bar, or illicit massage business.
  • Have a controlling parent, guardian, romantic partner, or “sponsor” who will not allow them to meet or speak with anyone alone or who monitors their movements, spending, or communications.
young protestors show their support for stopping human trafficking.
November 07, 2019 – Las Vegas, Nevada, USA: Yahoo Images

People to contact:

If you think someone is being trafficked contact:

The National Human Traffic

king Hotline: Call 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733

Call 911

U.S. Government Trafficking-Related Links:

OFFICE OF REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT TRAFFICKING EFFORTS
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/anti_trafficking.htm

OFFICE FOR VICTIMS OF CRIME TRAFFICKING EFFORTS
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/help/tip.htm

Mounting Peril: COVID-19 in Mexico

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.

As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.

Gender-Based Violence

Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, many indigenous peoples are skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is largely attributed to their constant mistrust of the Mexican government which views state power as an enemy of the people. As such, conspiracies have emerged such as medical personnel killing people at hospitals and anti-dengue spray spreading COVID-19, the latter inspiring some indigenous peoples to burn several vehicles and attack the home of local authorities. Nevertheless, Mexico has confirmed over 4,000 cases and 600 deaths of indigenous peoples throughout the country. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) suggests fostering better relationships with traditional practitioners can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous populations. Additionally, community surveillance efforts and communication through local language, symbols, and images will better protect Mexico’s indigenous populations.

Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.

Organized Crime

Over the past 50 years, more than 73,000 people have been reported missing throughout Mexico, although 71,000 of these cases have occurred since 2006. Frequently targeted groups are men ages 18-25 who likely have a connection with organized crime and women ages 12-18 who are likely forced in sex trafficking. This proliferation in missing persons is largely attributed to the uptick in organized crime and drug traffic-related violence that has plagued the country. Searches for missing persons have been stalled since the arrival of COVID-19 which counters the federal government’s accountability, namely AMLO’s campaign promise to find missing persons. AMLO insists that the government countering the drug cartels with violence, like Mexico’s past administrations, is not the answer. However, many analysts argue his intelligence-based approach has emboldened criminal groups, namely with homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.

Immigration

With the U.S. government extending its border closures into late-August, tensions mount for the migrants who seek a better life in the U.S. In addition, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, California, and Texas, governors from Mexico’s northern border states have demonstrated reluctance to let Americans enter the country. These reciprocal efforts have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants, namely from Haiti, to seek asylum. As a result, the Mexico-U.S. border town of Tijuana has become a stalemate for 4,000 Haitian migrants in addition to another 4,000-5,000 in the Guatemala-Mexico border town of Tapachula. This has contributed to an economic crisis where there is no work available and people face the risk of being promptly deported, effectively nullifying their treacherous journey to Mexico.

Many undocumented migrants are afraid to visit Mexico’s hospitals due to fears of being detained which would introduce harsh living conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. Across from Brownsville, Texas, in the Matamoros tent encampment, aggressive isolation efforts were enacted after it was discovered that a deported Mexican citizen had COVID-19. To curtail to risk of COVID-19, the mostly asylum seekers are now expected to sleep only three-feet apart, head-to-toe. On the other hand, some Mexican nationals are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into El Paso, in addition to Southern California, under the travel restrictions loophole pertaining to medical needs. This influx is largely attributed to the lack of resources, such as oxygen and physical space, seen in many Mexican hospitals. As such, COVID-19 resource limitations are endured by both asylum seekers and medical migrants.

Woman sitting in front of a poster that includes pictures of femicide victims.
DRG Photo Contest Winner. Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in Mexico

As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.

As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.

An Argument for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Abstract of a red light
Abstract at a Red Light. James Loesch. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Different human rights groups support or have called for the decriminalization of sex work. Some of which include Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and Anti-Slavery International.

Picking on one, the Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in support and defense of human rights relating to personal autonomy and privacy as, “A government should not be telling consenting adults whom they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.” Joining 61 other organizations, they recently advocated for a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC. This Community Safety and Health Amendment Act intends to repeal statutes that criminalize adults who voluntarily and consensually engage in sexual exchange, while it upholds and defends the legislature which prohibits sex trafficking. The HRW affirms that adult consensual sexual activity may be covered by the concept of privacy, rejecting the idea that criminalization was a protective measure against HIV and STIs, and conveying that it was more likely to drive a vulnerable population underground.

However, the demands of these organizations and supporters of sex workers have surfaced controversy around sexuality, health, economics, and morality. Often the idea of sex work may be tied to or conflated with sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and rape. Open Society Foundation simply defines sex workers as “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work encompasses a wide range of professions and activities which include the trade of some form of sexual activity, performance, or service for a client to a number of fans for some kind of payment (including prostitution, pornography, stripping, and other forms of commercial sex). It is clearly separated from those services that utilize “the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation”. Decriminalizing sex work would call for the “removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ health and safety.” Amnesty International expands on these definitions in this report.

Many members of society view sex work as immoral or degrading to women, arguing that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, even if these workers find it profitable or empowering- even simply as the power to creatively express one’s sexuality. When we think of sex workers, we tend to assume they were forced into it or assume a desperate narrative with no other options. Then, maybe, we judge their appearance while tying it to their worth or a fantasized idea of sex workers opposed to the ordinariness we associate with other professions and community members. A simple argument says that, like any profession, there are extremely different motivations to pursue these professions and, in the end, it’s a job or choice of work with its own pros and cons for each lifestyle (affording many lifestyles). Also, anyone and any personality can be a sex worker.

People enter and remain in this work for a multitude of reasons creating each individual experience of sex work; however, many face the same response and abuse in the workplace or trade. Owning to the stigma associated with the profession, not many can come out and say they are a sex worker. They must fight to be recognized beyond the stigma or continue to repress or hide their daily lives from their community or society. Sex workers report extreme violence and harassment from clients, managers, police and society and even more cannot report these violences, facing incrimination or even incarceration. Ironically, laws on sex work undermine governments’ own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations.

Repressive policing not only further marginalizes sex workers as a whole, but it also reinforces what it promises to remove as it exposes sex workers to different abuses and exploitation by police or law enforcement officials who may arrest, harass, physically or verbally abuse, extort bribes and sexual services, or deny protection to sex workers avoiding the eyes of the law. Some sex work may be illegal because it is viewed as immoral and degrading, but people governed by these laws do not share the same moral beliefs. As police fail to act on sex workers’ reports of crimes, or blame and arrest sex workers themselves, offenders may operate with impunity while sex workers are discouraged from reporting to the police in the future. Then there is the financial toll of criminalization as repeating fines or arrests push some further into poverty. People may be forced to keep selling sex as potential employers will not hire those with a criminal record. Also, if the need for money found some sex workers in the streets, how will fines deter the work?

The work entails forming relationships with a wide range of clients at different levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, sex work offers comfort to predators, or those who mean harm, who also understand and exploit the workers paralleling relationship with police. Working in isolation, workers’ lives are threatened as they avoid the police and are denied these protections in their workplace and, off the hook, predators continue to harm more even those outside of the sex trade. Facing arrest or prosecution themselves, any client may protect themselves from blocked numbers leaving workers in the dark with no evidence of whom they are dealing with, surrendering that safety. Some laws advocate helping sex workers by removing the option of work as it criminalizes only those who buy sex. Now, to incentivize clients and income, workers may be forced to drop prices, offer more risky services, or reach out to potentially abusive third-party management.

Woman holding poster reaing "Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces"
Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces. Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons for Flckr.

Decriminalizing and regulating the work of sex workers would allow them the right to choose their clients and negotiating power or power to cease the service when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Criminalization, or the threat of it, complicates and weakens workers’ power to negotiate terms with their clients or collaborate with others for safety. So, for example, it may increase the chance for workers to engage in sex with clients without a condom (which may be used as evidence of the crime). Although variable in different contexts, in low and middle-income countries on average, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV, compared to women of reproductive age (age 15 to 49), so their ability to negotiate condom use is important.

According to a study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone, including clients and partners. They were also twice as likely to have Sexual Transmitted Infections than those who avoided repressive policing.

In order to be protected from exploitation by third party managers and dangerous clients, to be informed on sexual transmitted infection and other health concerns or vulnerabilities, to be able to unionize and self-manage, and to be able to reach out to law enforcement, sex work should be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations that benefit workers in other labor industries. Dedicated efforts must consider the elevated or unique risks, vulnerabilities, and intersectional stigmas surrounding different sex workers, including men, transgender, and other gender identities and portions to improve health outcomes and human rights. Wider political actions are needed to address inequalities, stigma, and exclusion or marginalization that sex workers face even past the criminal justice system to health, housing, employment, education, domestic abuses, etc.

We are faced with opposing or contradictory narratives of the sex work experience, but we have chosen some to represent the entire concept especially those tailored to our own feelings of sex and commerce without concern or consideration of those even more immediately affected. The conversation of sex work needs to open up to understand and share the message to all that the labor itself is the commodity, not the laborer and it requires workers more considerate rights and regulations. If sex work is legally accepted with due rights and respect, it can become something that benefits- even especially vulnerable or marginalized- women and humanity.

What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.”

Additional Sources:

Open Society Foundations

Vox

 

 

 

What Will It Take to End Child Marriage in Your Country?

by Grace Ndanu

The silhouette of a young girl with her head hanging low in her lap
Source: Pixabay

Justice is coming! As I continue growing old I keep asking myself, why child marriage? Is it really necessary? And if not, what do I or we have to do about it? I understand that child marriage is a result of male dominance at large. I think it’s best if we bring men on board first. Working with men can be very effective in reducing child marriage if not ending it. It will help to change ideas and behaviors, especially dealing with patriarchal attitudes. Once men are on board, they can use their influence to pave the way for positive change.

Adults have groups where they get to share what they are going through. Children also need safe spaces in schools. This will help them build their confidence and trust amongst themselves and also with their teachers. I’m sure there are girls who wouldn’t have gone through early marriage if they had a chance to escape. But they didn’t. Simply they didn’t have anyone to tell regarding what their parents were planning for them. This is why they need that space, it’s the window to their success.

Corruption has deep roots in my country, Kenya. For example, I would like to know where funds meant for educating less fortunate girls go. Culture is not the only reason for early marriage, but also poverty. There are girls who sacrifice themselves to go get married in an effort to reduce a burden on their parents. It has come to my notice that the leaders or people responsible for the education funds tend to accuse these girls of bad behaviour, but they are trying their level best to do what is right. Can’t the funds holders use the funds to educate the girls instead of them using the funds for their own benefits?

Not all problems are solved through fighting. Why shouldn’t we mingle? As they explain why early marriage we have a chance to convince them how early marriage is harmful and the advantages of not doing it. At some point there will be some girls listening, them knowing the advantages of not being married off, they will always want to go for their success and thus they will always report whatever harmful plan is made for them.

I don’t know who is with me! I consider myself as the second doubting Thomas. If am not sure of what am told I will ask for a success story if not stories. The girls who escaped the scandal of early marriage should be advised to go back to their communities and villages. The parents will be so proud until they will shout for the whole community to hear and come and see. Other parents would want their daughters to come home successful and hence they may change their attitudes towards early marriage. On the other hand there will be role models for little girls and the whole society.

Barriers to the Mental Health Care of Sex Trafficked Victims.

A woman with her eyes closed and hands on her cheeks
Source: Mental Health, Yahoo Images

This blog uses direct quotes from survivors that may be explicit for some readers.

What is Sex Trafficking?

The U.S. Department of State defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, provision, or the obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act. The commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, where the survivors are pushed to perform such acts while under 18 years of age”. Sexual trafficking relies heavily on the control of the victim’s vulnerability. According to the Trafficking Hotline, about 10,949 cases of human trafficking were reported in the year 2018 alone. Among those cases, 7,859 account for sex trafficking (approximately 71.78%). Those who are survivors of human trafficking report experiencing severe cases of abuse and extortion sex practices. As a result, these individuals’ lives are continuously exposed to physical and sexual trauma.

So how does sex trafficking occur? After individuals are lured by their traffickers, victims are absorbed into the underground and uncontrolled sectors of the economy where wage, health, and safety law violations routinely happen. In these sectors, individuals are hooked into prostitution, pornography, and other forms of the commercial sex industry. Those who have survived human trafficking explain how hard it is to escape the trafficker. For example, in an interview with Kristina Kuzmic, Oree describes her experiences as a victim of human trafficking,

Warning Explicit Content.

And he grabbed me by my hair and drugged me down the street. My knees was scraping the floor. There was other women out there, nobody did anything. When you have been forced to sleep with 7 to 15 men and be raped and be 11 years old, I was like slowly dying. And after the first night, you suppress those feelings because any inch of hope that you have, any sense of “I can get out,” any feeling of “There’s a God,” any feeling of “I don’t deserve this,” you get beat, You ain’t going to survive out there. By the time I was 12 years old within a year, I was already raped over 4,000 times.”

In Oree’s case, she explains that she was not able to get away from her trafficker until a man named Jim Carson came to her rescue when she was 14 years old. In her interview, Oree emphasizes, “It was never a choice. It’s not a choice for these kids…they are children whose dreams and innocence was stolen and snatched from them.” Regardless of the form of their exploitation, trafficked victims suffer extreme abuse that often results in physical and mental trauma.

Traffickers use various means, such as pregnancy, to coerce trafficked victims, This ensures that the individual is emotionally bound and remains dependent on the trafficker to meet her own and her child’s needs. In an interview, Rebecca Bender, another survivor of sex trafficking narrates her experiences as follows,

“When you have a trafficker that’s at home with your child and says, if you don’t bring home $1500, you’re going to find your daughter out on the corner. I think I was probably more frightened to go home than I was to be in the room because if you got robbed, it was your fault for being stupid. If you get raped, it was your fault for not watching your back. Anything that happened to you was typically your fault, and you incurred more punishment for allowing these things to happen.”

Trafficked victims, like Bender, often blame themselves for their situation, therefore making it even harder for them to escape their traffickers. Some other reasons victims find it hard to leave include:

  1. Threats of violence against the victim’s family and loved ones.
  2. Traffickers requiring their victims to repay all debt (real or not real) before they can be liberated.
  3. Traffickers manipulate victims to believe they love them.
  4. Victims may be unfamiliar with the language of the country they are in and often do not know how to get around.

Sex Trafficking and Mental Health.

Prolonged captivity has been found to cause psychological trauma and contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because traffickers instill psychological trauma through terror, helplessness, and continuous destruction of the victim’s self-esteem. Constant death threats and physical abuse, followed by inconsistent and unpredictable outbursts of violence, results in significant mental health consequences for trafficked victims. For PTSD, symptoms either present themselves within the first three months after a traumatic event or can go for months to years without showing any symptoms, making it harder to detect and diagnose. In addition to PTSD, victims of human trafficking have been found to suffer from other anxiety and mood disorders, including panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. There is also an increased risk for the development of dissociative disorders.

Substance abuse disorder is also at the top of the list. While some victims of trafficking may report prior substance addictions, the majority of victims who reported alcohol and drug use said they began using drugs after they were in their trafficking situations. Other victims report being forced into drugs by their traffickers or using drugs as a coping mechanism.

Types of Treatment.

Understanding the effects of human trafficking on the mental health of victims requires long-term comprehensive therapy. Some of the evidence-based treatment options for PTSD include:

  • Cognitive Therapy
    • Challenges dysfunctional thoughts based on irrational or illogical assumptions.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
    • Combines cognitive therapy with behavioral interventions such as exposure therapy, thought breathing techniques.
  • Exposure Therapy
    • Aims to reduce anxiety and fear through the confrontation of thoughts or actual situations related to the trauma.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
    • Combines general clinical practice with brief imaginal exposure where a client is asked to imagine feared images or situations, and cognitive restoration. Rapid eye movement may be induced.
  • Stress Inoculation Training
    • Combines psycho-education with anxiety management techniques such as relaxation training, breathing retraining, and thought stopping.

Barriers to Treatment.

Language barriers and transportation issues may hinder adequate treatment. Service providers express that clients who speak other languages have difficulty receiving care or even seeking care. More importantly, transportation barriers may result in missing appointments, which interferes with treatment. When looking at language, culture also plays a role. Just because someone speaks the same language as the victim, does not necessarily mean that services offered will be culturally appropriate. While speaking the same language as clients can help with service provision, other pieces of one’s culture are often overlooked. For example, some cultures may require that women only see women providers, and therefore it becomes difficult when the only provider available is male. In addition, some victims may also fear talking about their experiences because of fear of stigma and shame. Traumatic events may also affect the memories and may negatively influence the individual’s ability to recall events. Lastly, longer wait times for psychotherapy and funding cuts continue to be a challenge to both mental healthcare professionals and patients.

How Can Treatment be Improved?

I believe it is important to offer trafficking-specific training to professionals. This will help increase awareness of trafficking as well as inform the staff of available resources. Acknowledging the gender of patients when writing out assessments is also important because it will lead to better practice by providing more treatment options for victims. There is also the need to examine both social and psychological factors when responding to mental health needs. This will help improve communication between services as well as offer more insight into what type of treatment one should receive. Furthermore, there is a need for more research to help explore the ways in which healthcare professionals identify victims and determine what kind of care one receives. This will allow for the generalization of mental health practices and procedures into other disciplines. While there is still plenty to improve, it is important to note that there is work being done to enhance the mental health care of trafficked individuals.

The information above does not fully cover what victims of human trafficking experience before, during, and after they escape their traffickers. If you see something suspicious, call the Blue Campaign with your tip and be sure to include the car tag and vehicle description.

Call: 1-866-347-2423

Rape Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Trafficking Hotline: 1-800-373-7888

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

The Sex Trafficking Industry Right In Alabama

by Dianna Bai

a picture of hands in chains
Source: Public Domain

You may have heard of the tragic situation straddling the I-20 corridor, the stretch of highway that runs between Birmingham and Atlanta.

Known as the “sex trafficking super highway,” the I-20 corridor is a hotbed for human trafficking.

The intimate settings of this illegal trade? Familiar places in our backyard: the hotels on Oxmoor Road, Woodlawn, Bessemer, and establishments all over the city of Birmingham.

Yet sex trafficking is not just confined to the I-20 corridor, as many media reports would suggest. It’s spread throughout the state of Alabama, in large cities and rural areas alike, appearing in myriad variations. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 6000 victims of human trafficking each day in Alabama, which includes labor and sex trafficking.

As a $32 billion industry, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world after the illicit drug trade—and it’s the fastest-growing. It’s the modern-day slave trade flourishing under the radar.

In the idyllic foothills of Alabama, we are touched by dark and complex operations with global reverberations.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking in Alabama?

Sex traffickers prey on the vulnerable, such as people who come from poverty or broken families.

According to The WellHouse, a non-profit organization that shelters young women in Alabama who have been victims of sex trafficking, there is a common “model” of a victim human traffickers prey on.

She is often a 12-14-year-old girl who has already been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. An emotionally vulnerable young woman, she is lured in by the promises of comfort, love, and acceptance that an older man offers her.

He will later become her captor.

One example provided by Carolyn Potter, the executive director of The WellHouse, offers us a glimpse into the world of the girls who become victims of traffickers:

“There was a victim who had been abused by her stepfather—and her mother blamed her. Her captor started luring her in and buying her Hello Kitty items. She loved this. Nobody who was supposed to protect her protected her.”

Sex traffickers often prey on girls who have been abused by the people who love them. The accumulated trauma and experiences of abuse that these girls have been subjected to in their young lives gives rise to a sense of apathy and hopelessness.

So when their captors, who had been lavishing them with gifts and attention, start asking them to sell their bodies, their reaction is often, “Why not? This has been happening to me all my life.”

To numb the pain of repeated abuse, they may turn to drugs provided by the captors and become addicted. Traffickers then have a way to keep them from leaving.

A few might escape this life by her own efforts, but more often than not they escape through rescue operations carried out by law enforcement. In January of this year, the Well House participated in a sting operation led by the FBI during the Atlanta Super Bowl that rescued 18 girls and led to 169 arrests.

Once rescued, one of the most important steps to helping victims is simply the process of gaining their trust, as most victims who have been trapped in this life suffer from complex trauma. “Their level of PTSD is equal to someone who’s been in war,” Potter said.

What does the sex trafficking industry look like in Alabama?

As a criminal activity, sex trafficking in Alabama can take on many forms.  

“Alabama is a microcosm of human trafficking around the world,” said Christian Lim, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama who is heading up a federally funded project on the subject. “There is just about every type of human trafficking in Alabama.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are individual pimps conducting a small-time business. They might even be family members who are pimping out their children for rent or drug money—and these cases often go unreported because of the family connection. On the other end, there are the massage parlors that are the fronts for international criminal networks, laundering money and trafficking women from places as far as China and Korea. These massage parlors routinely bring in $500,000-$800,000 a year, operating late into the night and advertising online at dozens of websites selling sex.

Sex trafficking has also risen in recent years among street gangs in Alabama with ties to Georgia, Florida, and even the West Coast, according to Teresa Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Street gangs such as the Bloods, Simon City Royals, Latin Kings, and Surenos are known to be engaging in sex trafficking to make a profit alongside the illegal drug trade. Recruiting mostly young victims, traffickers use “bottom girls” – prostitutes who are trusted by the pimps – to identify and recruit new girls, as well as a bevy of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, KIK, Meet Me, Badoo, and Seeking Arrangement. Gangs like the Surenos, which have a powerful reach back to El Salvador, can even coerce the women by threatening their families back home.

In many cases, other criminal activities such as drug dealing, money laundering, and murder also surround sex trafficking operations.

What’s being done about sex trafficking in Alabama?

One reason Alabama attracts traffickers of all stripes is because it is easier to get away with the crime than other states like Georgia that have a tactical task force dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Also playing to the trafficker’s advantage is the fact that Alabama is mostly a rural state with greater distances between police stations and fewer resources for law enforcement, said Lim, the professor of social work at the University of Alabama. He also said there’s needs to be more awareness raised about this issue as many misconceptions exist about sex trafficking due to the popular media’s portrayal of sex trafficking in movies like “Taken.”

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating an array of cases in Alabama and prosecuting cases at both the state and federal level. “We have made human trafficking arrests at every socioeconomic level in Birmingham, from Mountain Brook to $35-a-night hotel rooms,” said Doug Gilmer, the agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Birmingham office. “Trafficking victims also run the spectrum, with girls ranging from age 12 to the 50s.”

DHS has also provided training to 1500 Alabama law enforcement officers to combat sex trafficking in the state and offers education to any community group that’s interested. These trainings focus on how to how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, how to respond to a call, and how to support the victims.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Police have jumpstarted special initiatives to combat sex trafficking in Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Police worked with Illinois’ Cooke County police three years ago in a “National Day of Johns” sting, specifically targeting the “demand” side of the industry. Officers placed fictitious ads for sex services on various sites, which led to the arrest of 135 Johns over 16 days.

But it’s a cat-and-mouse game as traffickers find new ways to advertise sex services, moving from online ads to alternatives like secret Facebook groups. Undercover agents are seeking out these secret online groups to find traffickers and victims as traffickers learn from past mistakes and become savvier at using the digital tools at their disposal. A popular website hosted in the United States, backpage.com, was shut down by the FBI several years ago, yet has created new challenges for law enforcement as dozens of newer and smaller sites have now popped up hosted by foreign servers that are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Alabama’s state legislature is also moving on this issue. They have recently passed three resolutions that would require training for truckers and healthcare workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and make it easier for the trucker to identify victims. Two other bills moving through the legislature are intended to fine and “shame” johns for soliciting sex services.

“There should be no politics when it comes to protecting our children,” State Representative Merika Coleman told AL.com.

Right in Our Backyard

It is revealing and disheartening to see the extent of the modern-day slave trade right here in our backyard in Alabama. Without the right consciousness, it may be invisible to the average person. You may see a scantily dressed young woman walking through a gas station, a Sonic, or a Walmart. She is always accompanied by someone. She looks depressed or hopeless… You may have just run into a victim of human trafficking.

Vulnerable women (and men) and children are being exploited over and over again for the profit of more powerful and unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations. The traffickers could be anyone, but what they have in common is a disturbing disregard for human life and human dignity. In Alabama, there are many dedicated agencies fighting for the human rights of these victims, including The WellHouse, Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, Alabama Fusion Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For DHS agent Doug Gilmer, there is a sense of urgency to his mission because it is a crime that’s “unspeakable.”

“When you get into the nitty-gritty of sex trafficking at the street level and you are interacting with the victims, seeing what they go through, seeing what the traffickers do…. It’s horrible,” Gilmer said. “Seeing a 14-year-old girl with eight different STDs and the 35-year-old man who purchases this girl for sex?”

“It shocks the conscience.”

Important Links

The WellHouse – A 24-hour shelter offering immediate assistance to trafficked women who are rescued from anywhere in the United States.

EnditAlabama.org – A project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together public and private agencies to address the issue in Alabama.

Alabama Fusion Center – An information-sharing organization within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency designed to combine or “fuse” information between federal, state and local government, private sector entities, and the intelligence community

Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” – A national public awareness campaign, designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.