Somaly Mam is a Women’s Herstory Heroine who we covered earlier in the series. Yesterday, she spoke at the Levin Institute in New York City at an event hosted by the United Nations Association of New York. The UNA has established human trafficking as the main initiative of their advocacy committee. There is a sense of urgency, recognized by the UNA advocacy committee as reports from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that human trafficking is a business worth 4 billion dollars annually. According to this study, there are 4 million victims of human trafficking each year. There is a number of interesting facts about human trafficking that I learned at the event that I wanted to share with the Conducive Chronicle readers.
There are numerous misconceptions surrounding this new focus on human trafficking. Some of these misconceptions include that girls are only exploited by men for sex. But, brothel owners that are exploiting women are often owned and operated by women. The second misconception is that human trafficking is a foreign problem but it is something that takes place right in New York City and all over the U.S. Forced prostitution is not only imposed on women of Eastern Europe but on young girls and boys on every continent, in every country, in every city.
Carol Smolenski, the Executive Director of ECPAT, was the first of five panelists to speak at last night’s engagement. Her discussion focused primarily on American children who are trafficked and forced into sexual slavery. There are very few reliable sources of statistics on human trafficking, but she cited a study by UPENN that said 4,000 children in New York City are exploited by sex trafficking each year. Carol spoke about the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. This law is significant in the fight against human trafficking because it treats children forced into prostitution not as criminals, but as victims. Before this act, there was a widely held belief that young women on the street that were sold for sex were just “bad kids”. But, this new act ensures that these young women are entitled to services and treated as victims.
Carol also mentioned the ECPAT report entitled: Who is there to help us? This report discusses the fact that children are criminalized and punished when they are found prostituting themselves when in fact, they should be treated as victims. The road to prostitution of young girls is usually paved with some form of sexual abuse and neglect by the child’s family. There is also a “silence” around sexual abuse as mentioned by Carol. The abuse is unaddressed. Pimps prey on these young women and often use this line of reasoning: “You’ll give it up for free at home but you won’t accept money to get paid for it?” Pimps are mass manipulators and they pervert young children while preying off of their needs for love and affection. Carol referenced the wonderful organization G.E.M.S. based out of NYC and their film Very Young Girls as a source of information on domestic human trafficking and forced prostitution. Carol continued with mentioning the significance of the New York Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act which was the first law of its kind to treat children under the age of 16 as victims and make them eligible for services.
The second panelist to speak was Jennifer Dreher from Safe Horizon. Jennifer’s contribution to the panel included an emphasis on victims of forced labor. Jennifer explained that New York City is one of the top three destinations for human trafficking in the U.S. There are 100,000 to 3 million people domestically trafficked each year. Reports show that up to 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. yearly. As mentioned by previous panelist Carol Smolenski, there are few accurate statistics on how many people are actually trafficked because of the clandestine nature of these operations.
Jennifer’s organization focuses on foreign born survivors trafficked in the U.S., explaining that human trafficking is so hard to identify and address because there are so many conflicting definitions of what human trafficking actually is. There is are various definitions under international law, a federal definition, individual state definitions– if parties can’t agree on what human trafficking actually is, how can they adequately address it? She continued to point out that the media “sensationalizes cases of human trafficking”. Most often, movies and documentaries may focus on one particular group of exploited people such as women from Eastern Europe who are held as sex slaves. Sex slavery is a a problem, but Jennifer estimates that as many as 60% of women who are trafficked into the U.S. as labor servants.But, these victims of forced labor are also subjected to sexual violence and physical torture on top of forced labor. Jennifer’s question to the attendees was: “How can you say if victims of sex trafficking have it worse than victims of labor trafficking if both groups are treated inhumanely?” Jennifer pointed out that service providers need to be focused in their outreach because human trafficking covers so many different issues, and organizations should be prepared to deal with each issue in a comprehensive manner. Also, Jennifer discussed the widely unaddressed issue of transgendered individuals in NYC who are forced to perform sex acts for survival.
Celhia de Lavarene, President of STOP, was the third panelist. Celhia is a French-born woman who worked in Bosnia as a political journalist. There she discovered two young girls tied to a bed with tape over their mouths. These two young girls had been missing from their parents for six months. Celhia gave a heart-felt speech about why human trafficking is such an important issue that requires a global response. Celhia explained that many children who are forced to work in brothels have been kidnapped by their parents. But, when men frequent the brothels, they just assume that these young children want to be there.
Celhia highlighted that human beings are mobile and victims are stationed in countries like Liberia only for a short time to be sent to places like the Philippines, Ukraine, and Egypt, going on to mention that human trafficking yields a 7 billion dollar profit annually in Bosnia. Because women can be sold over and over again, they are more profitable than guns and drugs, which can only be sold once. It is a more lucrative business than selling arms or other illicit substances. Shockingly, Celhia unveiled the reality that UN peacekeepers are sometimes clientele at these brothels that victimize young girls. UN peacekeepers have a certain level of immunity from the law. Hence, they go to brothels for sex with children and go unpunished for their actions. Her talk was ended with a sincere charge for all attendees to get involved in the fight of human trafficking in any way that they could.
Guy Jacobson was the fourth panelist in the evening’s discussion. He works very closely with Somaly Mam and has produced several documentaries, written books, and speaks with Somaly on panels across the world. Guy is currently a film maker but in his previous profession, he was an investment banker and attorney. While in Cambodia filming a documentary on child sex trafficking with Somaly Mam, Guy relieved phone calls from intelligence personnel warning him that there were death threats on his life from the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian mafia. Making movies in Cambodia exposing their most lucrative business was not a wise move, Guy was warned. In order to continue with his documentary, Guy and Somaly had 40 armed body guards with machine guns.
Guy, like Somaly, emphasizes that because there is a demand for sex with children, there is a supply for this industry. Guy discussed his action in attacking the clientele of these brothels, who are sometimes prominent Western businessmen. Guy suggested making the industry of sex with children more expensive, making the punishments more severe for offenders who rape children, and he also suggested clarifying the law in regards to child trafficking.
As an attendee, the most moving part of Guys’ delivery was his use of the word “rape”. In most cases that I’ve witnessed in discussing child sexploitation, words such as trafficking and forced prostitution are used. When Guy used the word “rape”, it added a new bone-chilling element to what is happening across the world. Guy mentioned that if a child was a prisoner of war and was raped by military personal, it would be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention. Guy added that our governments would be taking serious action against these crimes. He stressed the need for the same reaction to be had when we learn that children in foreign countries are raped. Some of these children are raped 50 times in day..
After hearing all the panelists and eventually the words of Somaly Mam, I was evermore inspired to work with initiatives to stop this horrendous crime against humanity and these very young adults. Last to speak was Somaly Mam who has saved 6,000 children from brothels and has established the Somaly Mam Foundation. In the previous article on Somaly Mam, you can find the wise and life changing words of this woman. She encourages people everyone to get involved in the fight against human trafficking and to “empower victims” whenever we can.
Next month, the United Nations Association with be filming Guy Jacobsons’ documentary “Holly”. Tickets are $10.00 and you will need to R.S.V.P. on-line prior to the showing.
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