Last week at Upper School Assembly, as part of International Women's Day, our Girl Up Club sponsored the showing of Sold, a film about a Nepalese girl sold into prostitution; we also screened Sold last night as part of the Open Door Film Society. Sadly, some version of Lakshmi's story occurs frequently all over the world, including here in the U.S.
In the film, we first meet Lakshmi as a carefree young girl living in the beautiful mountains of Nepal. However, when the family's thatched roof fails to keep out the rain despite patching, her father decides to hand her over to a woman for a sum that will pay for a tin roof. He thought she was going to work as a servant for a nice family. The woman who escorts her to a city in India treats her kindly, but once they get to Happiness House, it's not long before Lakshmi is put to work. She resists her first john, badly scratching his face and then running away, only to be caught almost immediately, and returned to the brothel and harsh punishment. Without the opportunity to escape, Lakshmi focuses on making enough money to pay back the brothel owner, only to learn that the owner has her own accounting methods that will ensure that Lakshmi can never settle the debt. She is trapped in perpetual servitude. Then one day she sees a nun handing out fliers for a free clinic in the street below her barred window. She lets a feather drop, and the woman notices her. The woman, it turns out, is not a nun at all, and is working with an organization combatting sex trafficking. When they raid the brothel, all the prostitutes, including Lakshmi, are hidden and the raid turns up nothing. A long time later, Lakshmi figures out how to escape by bending the bars on her window and lowering herself by a makeshift rope to the street. She manages to make it to Hope House, the organization that conducted the unsuccessful raid. The film ends there with the expectation that Lakshmi will remain free and find a happy life.
While Lakshmi's story has a happy ending of sorts, she probably isn't typical of the approximately 20.9 people that the International Labor Organization estimates are engaged in forced labor worldwide. Of those, 4.5 million work essentially as slaves in the sex trade (others work in agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic work). A 2009 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime differs from the ILO, finding that sexual exploitation drives 79% of human trafficking. Both agree that women and girls make up 55% of trafficked peoples, a statistic that emphasizes females' relative lack of power while demonstrating that this enormous human rights issue affects them disproportionately. About 5.5 million are children who are being exploited for pornography, prostitution, sex tourism, and forced marriage as well as migrant farm work, military service, sweatshop work, and begging. In the US, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one out of every six runaway children is probably a victim of sex trafficking.
Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon. Asia has the highest quantity of human trafficking while the highest per capita occurs in Central and Southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, we should not think we are exempt; human trafficking still takes place here in the US. The most reliable estimate is that 17,500 people are trafficked into the US annually while approximately 200,000 individuals, many of whom are children, are trafficked within the US. Despite what we might think, the National Human Trafficking Hotline receives more reports of US citizens being trafficked than immigrants. Moreover, Washington, DC ranks as one of the top cities for human trafficking in the US, so it's happening right here, whether we realize it or not. Part of the reason forced labor and human trafficking is so widespread is that it generates $150 billion globally; commercial sexual exploitation accounts for $99 billion of that.
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called human trafficking "the emerging human rights issue for the 21st century" and argues that we need to call it by its true name, slavery. I'm a great fan of Kristof, but even his compelling writing on this topic hadn't grabbed my attention. It seemed like a terrible but remote issue. Then, this New Year's Eve, I had a long conversation with a friend of a friend who had become a deeply involved in fighting human trafficking through her work with the Junior League. Her passion and knowledge of the issues opened my eyes and sparked my interest.
I will admit that Kate's becoming engaged in this cause through the Junior League surprised me, but it turns out that Junior League chapters around the country have done considerable work in this area, leading the United Nations Association of New York to honor their efforts in 2011. Kate lives in New Jersey where she and her fellow volunteers' on the Junior League's State Public Affairs Committee advocacy efforts helped New Jersey pass one of the toughest anti-trafficking laws in the nation, one that allows human trafficking as a defense against a charge of prostitution. This clause is important because very often the legal system punishes the prostitute rather than those responsible for prostitution, the pimps and the johns. This law also makes having paid sex, being a john, a crime as well. She also received appointment by the Governor to the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force.
While New Jersey ranks as one of the top states in terms of its efforts to eradicate human trafficking and support its victims, all states have at least some legislation that addresses human trafficking. The Polaris Project scored both Virginia and Maryland among top tier states in these areas (DC does not fare as well, falling short in several areas).
The federal government has also passed anti-trafficking legislation, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 which has been amended multiple times. Significantly, it originally focused primarily on individuals being trafficked into the US from abroad. As Congress has amended it, they have expanded the focus on domestic human trafficking. Congress has passed numerous other bills related to human and sex trafficking, generally with bipartisan support. Likewise, in 2003, the UN promulgated the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, known as the Palermo Protocol. The Protocol not only aims to accomplish what its title suggests, but also calls for "protect[ing] and assist[ing] the victims of such trafficking" as well as "cooperation" among states to achieve these goals.
As we have seen, powerful economic incentives promote human trafficking. At the same time, its victims represent voiceless members of society. Poverty, dislocation, and political instability as well as sexual orientation render people especially susceptible to trafficking. Remember that Lakshmi's father sold her for a tin roof. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 86% of the American runaways whom they suspect are sexually exploited had been in foster care or the social services system, a highly vulnerable population. Given women's inferior status, it's no surprise that they constitute the majority of the trafficked. Law enforcement needs to enforce the laws on behalf of these marginalized peoples and countries need to work together to prevent transportation across borders. Judicial systems need to convict traffickers and those who use the services of the trafficked whether that be a farm, restaurant, or john. Numerous organizations focus on eradicating trafficking and supporting victims, but they cannot succeed without support of the state.
Eradicating human trafficking goes beyond laws, protocols, effective enforcement and NGO work. Because human trafficking victims are by definition powerless, they exist under the radar in many respects. However, there are people in particular occupations who, with proper training, can help to identify victims of trafficking – this was some of the most interesting information I learned from my new friend, Kate. For example, flight attendants and chamber maids may be uniquely situated to observe behavior that may indicate that a person is being trafficked. Flight attendants now frequently receive this training which asks them to look for telltale signs. Likewise a number of hotel chains as well as industry associations are giving chambermaids and other hotel/motel staff tools to identify and report human trafficking. According to Kate, this kind of training is making a significant difference in combatting human trafficking.
You may think as I did that human trafficking happens elsewhere. It does, but it also happens right here, probably under our noses. Moreover, this modern slavery disproportionately affects girls and women. We should educate ourselves on the topic, support organizations that are working to combat it, and press our elected officials on all levels to keep the issue at the forefront. And we can all spread awareness as Kate did and as did Monika Samtani P'10 to whom we are very grateful for introducing us to Sold. Start by going to www.soldthemovie.com.