On the way out of the restaurant, she pointed out the pair to her friend.
“Don’t look,” her friend said, alarmed. “That’s not her father. That’s her pimp.”
If you’re like me, you want to stop reading now. My friend had a hard time sharing this story, and I, the mother of three, had a damn hard time hearing it. But stories like these have to be told, and the victims of trafficking, many of whom are children, deserve faces and voices . . . and a chance.
But what can you or I do to help stop human slavery? The answers may surprise you.
Today, in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I’m sharing thoughts from Donna Sabella, PhD, RN. Donna is the Founder and Director of Project Phoenix, an agency that provides support and services to women and girls in need, including those who have been exploited and trafficked. She is also the Director of Global Studies and the Director of the Office of Human Trafficking at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professionals, as well as a frequent presenter on the topic of human trafficking. Donna was an incredible resource for me while I was writing THE SEDUCTION OF MIRIAM CROSS. I had the honor of interviewing Donna yesterday in commemoration of today. Below is a recap of our discussion.
What are the prime factors contributing to human trafficking?
Before we talk about the root causes of trafficking, we should make sure we understand what trafficking is. There are two general types of trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Labor trafficking can happen in a number of settings: domestic (homes), factories, plantations/farms, etc. Sex trafficking is the more commonly known type of trafficking, especially here in the United States.
Donna points out that when it comes to sex trafficking, the lines can blur. Whenever the victim is under 18, it’s considered a severe form of human trafficking and is a crime. “That’s a hard line,” Donna says. “Under 18 is always human trafficking. There is no ‘voluntary.’” But what about adults? Here, she admits, the line can be fuzzier. In order for something to be considered trafficking, there must be force, fraud or coercion. When it comes to adult prostitution or exploitation, especially when a pimp or handler is involved, it’s not always clear when these indicators are triggered. Nevertheless, she points out, many sex workers have been exploited and need help.
So what are the root causes of human trafficking? Donna points to four. “But they’re interconnected,” she warns. You can’t view them in a vacuum.
Poverty. “Trafficking is really an economically-driven crime,” Donna says. “You can’t get away from that.” For both the victims and the victimizers, trafficking often goes hand-in-hand with poverty. “Victims of trafficking often lack the skills or education needed to get a job. Even if they do have skills, they may live in an area that has no jobs, so they lack opportunity. Often, they have limited resources.” This makes them vulnerable to traffickers. And often the traffickers themselves were once trafficked – or they, too, have limited resources and opportunities, and so turn to trafficking as a way to make money. It’s a vicious circle, with poverty and economics at its core.
Societal views on the role of women. In many cultures, Donna says, women are not viewed as equal to men. They’re not given the same rights and opportunities or protections under the law. In some instances, girls and women are not urged to see themselves as humans at all, deserving of rights or dignity. This makes them especially vulnerable to trafficking, and may make the traffickers feel justified in exploiting them.
Societal views on prostitution – and lack of legal consistency. “We could debate this topic for hours,” Donna admits. Many feel adult women (and men) should have the right to offer sex for money. But you can’t escape the fact that the demand for paid sex fuels human trafficking. It’s a slippery slope. “And it’s legal in one place, illegal in others;” acceptable in some cultures, not in others, Donna says, which also exacerbates the problem.
Demand for cheap goods. “From consumers to companies, we all want a good deal. But on whose backs do these savings come?” The requirement for cheap goods drives labor trafficking, especially abroad. And children are often the victims. It’s a tough truth, but “here in the U.S., we outsource our labor trafficking by buying cheap goods made abroad," Donna says. This is an especially tough one to combat, Donna points out, because as consumers we don’t always have a way of knowing the source of our goods.
So what can we do?
"Move beyond watching movies [about the problem],” Donna says. “Educate yourself, but then get involved with agencies that are doing something.”
Easier said than done? Not really. I asked Donna to provide concrete examples of things we can all do to help. Her list surprised me.
1. Recognize the signs of trafficking. Trafficking can occur anywhere, including in normal, suburban neighborhoods, Donna says. “Do you see people coming and going at all hours of the night, cars pulling in and out at odd hours . . . children who are seen taking out the trash one day and then disappear for weeks?” These could be indicators. But what do you do if you suspect something illicit is going on? “Call the trafficking hotline, local police department or crime victims unit. And many counties have an anti-trafficking coalition. You can call that as well.” And if you are in law enforcement, medicine, education or another field in which it’s even more likely that you’ll be in contact with victims, take steps to educate yourself. Some airlines and hotels have taken a pledge to train their workers, which is a positive step, Donna says. But there are courses others can take. Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professionals has courses available, and they have proposed a post-bachelor certification program that would be open to anyone, Drexel student or not, once it’s approved.
2. Support legitimate agencies that are working with trafficking victims or going after the traffickers. This can mean financial support, Donna says – money is always needed. (For a list of agencies that could use your financial support, click here.) But it can also mean volunteering your time or skills. Here are a few creative ideas Donna offered:
* Donate goods to local agencies. Many local agencies can use anything from toiletries to groceries to clothes. When trafficked victims are taken off the streets, one of the first things they need are decent clothes. Scour your wardrobe and make a donation.
* Have a specific skill? Anti-trafficking agencies can use people with specific skillsets. Are you a lawyer, doctor, counselor? Considering volunteering and offer services specific to your field.
* Speak another language? Polaris Project is always looking for bilingual volunteers who can talk to victims in their native language.
* Become a mentor. Kids who have been trafficked need a support system. “You can’t let someone go back out into the streets if nothing has changed,” Donna says. You need to help victims, especially kids, replace old behaviors and attitudes with new ones. That’s where mentors and foster parents come in.
* Volunteer for a hotline. Do you have the skills needed to talk people through a crisis? If so, consider offering your time to be a hotline volunteer.
* Lobby for alternatives. Not all states rank high when it comes to human trafficking laws. And often in the U.S. trafficked victims are sex workers. Especially for adult sex workers, jail may be the only alternative if they’re arrested, even if they were coerced or forced into the life. If you have political connections, consider lobbying for alternatives, Donna says, such as counseling and life skills programs.
* Help the homeless. Donna points out that many of the homeless are kids, and some of these kids turn to “survival sex” to stay alive. “No matter what you do for a child, you’re helping,” Donna says. So volunteer at a soup kitchen, give out blankets. Make life for them a little easier.
* Help pay for someone’s education. Donna shared the story of a woman who was helped off the streets by Project Phoenix. A trafficking victim, the woman was provided with the means to support herself through training, financial support and other services. She’s now enrolled in a doctoral program. But it doesn’t have to be college tuition, Donna points out. “It can be as simple as paying someone’s GED application fee.”
3. Become an educated consumer. As mentioned earlier, it’s not always possible to follow the supply chain of our foods and goods. But do your research. More and more companies are getting on the “Fair Trade” bandwagon or are pledging to monitor their own supply chains. Consumer activism works. The more we demand humanely-made goods, the more things will change.
4. Become a foster parent. When I asked Donna what her number one wish was when it came to the fight against human trafficking, she said she ‘d like to see foster parents who were vetted and trained to take in kids who have been trafficked until a permanent home can be found. “A kid is picked up at two in the morning. She or he is hungry, scared, abused. Being able to call a family that has been trained to care for such kids can make all the difference.”
In sum? Donna underscores the need for prevention. “This is difficult to change,” Donna says. “It’s a complex problem. We need to chip away at the roots of the issues that make human trafficking possible.” And that’s where we–the community–come in.
So, I urge you. Find one thing you can do to help–and do it.
Thanks to Donna Sabella for joining is. If you want to learn more about her agency, Project Phoenix, or if you want to contact Donna directly, visit her website here.
And remember that 50% of my net proceeds for the sale of THE SEDUCTION OF MIRIAM CROSS between 12/1/13 and 1/31/14 (e-books and print) will go to agencies fighting human trafficking.