"Susannah"* was raped by her stepfather when she was 11 years old. The exploitation at home spurred her to run away. On the streets, she was recruited by a gang in Cape Town, South Africa, managed by Nigerian organized-crime syndicates. For girls, initiation into the gang includes being raped and prostituted by the boys in the gang. In the gang life, Susannah was introduced to drugs and repeatedly raped. By the time Susannah turned 12, she had already been betrayed by her family, raped at home and on the street, and was addicted to drugs.
I first met Susannah at a conference on resource programs for exploited women and children hosted by Shared Hope International. This beautiful 18-year-old woman from South Africa had been out of the gang less than a year before my meeting with her. In the midst of our meetings she shocked us with her bold statement: "I am a person!" It was a magnificent moment celebrating the recognition of her dignity.
Susannah told us about being "independent" during her life of prostitution, although she was managed by a pimp, and her "clients" from Nigeria, the United States, and Australia introduced her to drugs and facilitated her habit. A girlfriend in a treatment program introduced her to Satanism. Susannah told us about rituals that included getting tattoos while renouncing the person of Jesus. When I first met her she had 13 tattoos - one, on her stomach, was of an upside-down cross.
After six years of exploitation by both men and women, Susannah had no idea that Jacobus and Erica Nomdoe were building a community to rescue and restore young women like her. The Nomdoes are a South African couple who care for troubled youth in Cape Town gangs. Working with their church and Teen Challenge International, the Nomdoes established a deferral system with the juvenile courts and a residential and vocational training center for teen boys. When they met Susannah and five other girls in a similar situation, they opened the doors of their own home and took them in. In the Nomdoes’ home, the girls found safety and hope.
I met the Nomdoes while traveling in South Africa in 2004 with former U.S. member of Congress Linda Smith - who founded Shared Hope International in 1998 - to plan an international summit on sex trafficking. The Nomdoes and their community made themselves available to very troubled youth, including those who were trafficked within South Africa. Their stories, although told by workers on the verge of burnout, were filled with hope. We were eager to do something to help. Thanks to generous donors we returned six months later to celebrate the dedication of the "Home of Hope," which now cares for young girls and women in Cape Town.
Through the Nomdoes I learned that human dignity can not be reduced to a language of self-actualization, discovery, and esteem. Human dignity is rooted in our relationship to our Creator. Oppression is not only the marring and exploitation of the person but the suppression of the divine image intended to be reflected in that person.
Susannah’s story is one of millions that can be told about youth who are betrayed by their families, left vulnerable to criminal networks, and exploited in excruciating ways. In the categories we create for injustice, we could name Susannah as a victim of domestic violence, gang rape, drug abuse, and more. But would we look at this story and call it trafficking?
"TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS" is primarily understood as the movement of persons across international boundaries for a variety of forms of exploitation. The crime of trafficking, of course, is not essentially about the movement of the person but about the exploitation. Trafficking is the denial of freedom.
Trafficking exists in many forms, each deserving very aggressive and specific initiatives to combat it. If people of faith are to understand the nature of trafficking that is done to prostitute others and other forms of sexual exploitation, they must address not only specific acts but also the broad range of issues that allow this form of exploitation to exist.
Trafficking is a global issue that takes root in almost every culture. In 2004, the U.S. State Department estimated that up to 18,500 men, women, and children are trafficked into the United States every year, some for forced labor and others for sexual exploitation. Estimates of the number of women and children who are trafficked across international borders each year range from 800,000 to 4 million. These numbers don’t take into account those moved from rural areas to urban centers within their own countries. For example, these numbers don’t include women and youth who are moved from the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand to Bangkok or who are recruited from rural Appalachia and moved to Baltimore.
IN THE UNITED STATES, victims of international sex trafficking come primarily from South and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. They are held captive in residential and commercial sex industry businesses throughout the United States. More than 170 cases of trafficking have been prosecuted by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s office since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000; 131 of those cases involved sex trafficking. Those offices have secured 120 convictions in trafficking; 99 of those 120 defendants were convicted of sex trafficking.
In April 2005, the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York had a major victory when three defendants pled guilty to all 27 counts of an indictment charging them with forcing young Mexican women to engage in commercial sex acts. The prostitution occurred in brothels throughout the New York City metropolitan area over a 14-year period. The defendants admitted to recruiting numerous young, uneducated Mexican women from impoverished backgrounds, smuggling them into the United States, and forcing them into prostitution. They described using physical force on the women, which led to serious injuries, and forcing the women to "service" several men a day.
Victims of domestic sex trafficking (those trafficked within the borders of the United States) are not well documented, but they are recruited from both rural and urban areas into the commercial sex industry. New Horizons Ministries in Seattle runs an outreach program working with street youth, including those involved in prostitution. Between June 2004 and June 2005, outreach workers recorded 772 interactions with women below the age of 23.
One girl they work with, Jasmine, was recruited by a man at a bus stop when she was 13 years old. She grew up in an impoverished family and was sexually abused at home. She was a prime target for a pimp who promised to provide her with beautiful clothes, love, and a promising future. Instead she got cycles of violence and exploitation from which she couldn’t escape. From the time Jasmine was 14 until she was 17, her pimp had her on a prostitution circuit that moved between Las Vegas, San Diego, Portland, and Seattle.
Atlanta is also a hub for sex trafficking. In August 2004, two men were convicted and sentenced for conspiring to participate in a juvenile prostitution ring - enticing juveniles into prostitution and into involuntary servitude. The girls, in this case, were all from the United States; some as young as 12. The pimps’ known activity occurred between 1997 and 2001 when they were arrested. The trial revealed the elaborate nature of the pimping networks, culture, and methods for enslaving the juveniles as prostitutes. The CEOs of this ring had created their own training video titled Pimps Up, Ho’s Down that outlined the "code of conduct" for pimps and prostitutes. To enforce their code, the pimps often beat the youth with belts, baseball bats, or "pimp sticks" (two coat hangers wrapped together). The pimps also forced them to lay naked on the floor and have sex with another prostitute while others watched. One of the men was sentenced to a total of 30 years in prison.
The activities of the commercial sex industry in the United States continue to create an enormous demand for victims of domestic and international sex trafficking. The common thread between the commercial sex industry and trafficking? Servitude and exploitation.
People of faith are already active in neighborhoods and initiatives where they find victims of international and domestic sex trafficking. Urban renewal projects, addiction recovery facilities, immigrant social services, domestic violence shelters, juvenile justice programs, and youth ministries are places where one might encounter a victim of trafficking - if you know what to look for.
We are all called to honor and summon out the true human dignity of the people in our midst, whether in boardrooms or on the streets - especially when, like Susannah before her escape from gang life and thousands of others still trapped in the economy of human slavery, they don’t perceive it in themselves.
Jennifer Goodson has worked in the anti-trafficking movement for the last six years, most recently as the director of international programs for Shared Hope International and as human rights coordinator at the Protection Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
What is Trafficking?
Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which defines "severe forms of trafficking in persons" as:
a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age, or
b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. —JG
Resources for Action:
Organizations working to combat domestic or international sex trafficking include:
- Shared Hope International (www.sharedhope.org)
- Protection Project (www.protectionproject.org)
- Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.org)
- New Horizons Ministries (www.nhmin.org)
- You Are Never Alone (www.yanaplace.com)
- World Vision (www.worldvision.org)
- International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org)
- Vital Voices (www.vitalvoices.org)