Friday, June 12 2015
Last week Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015. This follows a series of laws that have been passed to align the penalties for trafficking human beings with the brutality of the crime. In a nutshell, this legislation provides greater benefits to U.S. citizens and permanent resident who are victims of severe forms of trafficking, expands programs that assist law enforcement with recovering child victims, and provides for enhanced services. Nationally, we are chugging along in the right direction. However, it is important to remember that anti-trafficking legislation is not a panacea for commercial sexual exploitation. It is a tool that our community will use to help victims and hold pimps and traffickers accountable, but it cannot carry the burden of preventing the exploitation of young or vulnerable members of our community.
Survivors have reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center that poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse were their top risk factors prior to being trafficked. They list a desperation to provide for themselves and their children as a major factor in their path to exploitation It’s really not surprising that our awareness of sex-trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation increased following a long recession that hammered communities and pushed opportunity even further out of reach. What is interesting is how little we focus on the financial realities of the women involved. We see this lack of understanding during our work at a local community college. Almost half of the students we present to fail to identify poverty and prior victimization as precursors to commercial sexual exploitation. This is in contrast to the Polaris information and the hundreds of women that we have worked with that have been exploited. Poverty is so often inextricably linked. There are real consequences for not getting this right. Traffickers manipulate by promising a “better life” and they coerce women that are homeless or barely surviving.
We need to listen – and ACT on the information we receive from survivors. We need to employ poor young women and vulnerable women with a “jobs first” mentality. We need to create training programs that have stipends, childcare options, and social support. We need to develop apprenticeship programs that offer housing. We need to provide at-risk women with services that help them acquire enough social capital to move away from the edge. And while we are here, we must house homeless youth with a sense of urgency that reflects our understanding of the risk this population faces. This is prevention. This is the work on the ground. Legislation can provide a funding stream for “enhanced services” but preventing the commercial sexual exploitation of women will take both a commitment and a willingness to use the funding in creative ways that can make a difference.