By James E. Copple
Human-trafficking lives in the shadows of our global urban centers. “Shadows.” That’s her word, and she is a 15-year-old Eritrean girl sold by her parents and trafficked via container-truck to Nairobi, where she lives in a small shack. And hers isn’t an uncommon story in East Africa, where famine and drought mean the price of one child’s freedom feeds her siblings. Estimates indicate 500 girls and young boys are trafficked out of East Africa every month.
As we approach the events of “Freedom Sunday” on March 9, it’s important we understand this issue in the broader context of gender violence and gender exploitation. In Africa and the Middle East, approximately 125 million women have experienced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or cutting. The average age for this brutal experience is between 14 and 18. And in a survey conducted by the Daily Nation Newspaper in Nairobi, 72 percent of women interviewed believe men are entitled to hit them.
The shadow communities in the United States aren’t much different. Brothels, coerced prostitution and forced-labor feed a $32 billion-industry of exploited women and oppressed men, coerced into behaviors and jobs that destroy them spiritually, physically and mentally. I have seen these squalid environments in Juba, South Sudan, and in Seattle. I have heard the cry for help in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Las Vegas. Trafficking is a global problem, and it is part of the underbelly of crime and vice in most of the world’s urban centers. In the United States, nearly 100,000 children are trafficked.
UNICEF provides a comprehensive definition: “Child-trafficking can be likened to modern-day slavery. Child victims of trafficking are recruited, transported, transferred, harbored or received for the purpose of exploitation. Children are exploited and forced to work in brick kilns and sweatshops; on construction sites; in houses as domestic slaves; on the streets as child beggars; in wars as child soldiers; on farms for agriculture; in traveling sales crews; in the tourist industry at restaurants and hotels; in the commercial sex industry’s brothels, strip clubs, escort- and massage services. Some of these conditions are easy to see, but most are hidden.” (UNICEF website)
Wherever you live, trafficking is close. It may be in the shadows, but it’s likely within driving distance. Question your community leaders; find ways to engage. Become aware, and focus, this week on what you can do: Outreach billboards; stronger state policies on child-labor; more severe penalties for the “Johns” and for the traffickers.
UNICEF emphasizes the purposeful exploitation that is at trafficking’s core: “These child victims are recruited, transported, transferred, harbored or received for the purpose of exploitation,” and there is a “value chain” in the process. People are making money at every link along the way. It’s loosely coupled and, therefore, vulnerable. Exposure, or the threat of exposure, breaks the chain.
Step from the periphery of the shadows that would look the other way or imagine human-trafficking is too daunting; the issues too big. When we act, we bring hope to dark corners that perpetuate victims and despair to nurture survivors who will heal in the light.
Each of us, as individuals, or in organizations and communities, can be chain-breakers; life-savers; spiritual, physical and emotional defenders against the squalor that destroys young souls, their families, culture, neighborhoods and nations. Your small acts can break the chains of slavery that may begin with one or more gathered on Sunday but multiply to mean freedom at home and abroad for generations.
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