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The Citizen

Modern slavery is more pervasive than you think

By Jennifer Hoegen

Modern slavery, also known as human trafficking, is a hot topic these days.  It seems that everyone with whom I speak is aware of it.  But, what exactly is human trafficking?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime  (UNODC) defines it as:

… a crime against humanity. It involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad.

The UNODC indicates that: “Every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.”

Most people I encounter believe human trafficking does not happen in the United States or that it happens only to very specific populations.  The truth is that no country or community is immune to the horrors of modern slavery.  Women, men, boys, girls, transgender persons, foreign-nationals and U.S. citizens are all at risk.  Vulnerable populations, such as children, runaways and Tribal Communities are generally most at risk.

For one to delve deeply into the topic of human trafficking and to effectively combat it, one must challenge the stereotypes associated with it, particularly sexual exploitation.  For example, pimps are not always men.  They can be married couples or single women.  Children in the U.S. are exploited in both the labor and sex markets.  Children who runaway from home are not just delinquents or troublemakers; many run away from home for a reason.  These reasons can include physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, making them more vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation.

Not all females or males who are prostitutes choose that lifestyle.  Many are forced and coerced into it.  There is a debate among many groups (law enforcement, policymakers, feminists, sexual workers’ unions, etc.) about whether prostitution should be legal across the U.S.  Some believe that all prostitutes were coerced into sex work and/or that they have no other economic alternatives.  Others believe it is a conscious choice and a right for people to decide what type of work they prefer, even if it involves selling their bodies.  You can find strong arguments for both views although they seem to agree that sexually exploiting children should be illegal.

Human trafficking does not only happen in big cities.  It frequently happens in small suburbs, such as the case in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts this summer; along major highway routes; and near Tribal Communities’ reservations.  The Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC) published research findings on the prostitution and trafficking of native women, entitled, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” in October 2011.  This is the first publication I have ever read that specifically focused on Native Women.

Another area of the human trafficking debate, specifically addressed by MIWSAC, is how to help people who are victims of trafficking.  As with other crimes, treatment cannot be a one-size-fits-all.  People who are trafficked have a variety of needs, both instant (housing, medical care, legal assistance, etc.) and long-term (healing, recovery, obtaining and sustaining employment, potentially reconnecting with family, etc.).

What I aim to do in this series on modern slavery is to raise awareness about human trafficking in the U.S. and globally, present different perceptions and studies, and engage you as a global citizen to increase your recognition that we all contribute to modern slavery.  Additionally, these articles will provide ways to decrease our inadvertent participation in modern slavery and ultimately end its insidious practice around the world.  Stay tuned….