“We may not see this sort of slavery in the open, but it is there, lurking in shadows and on the fringes of society, quietly engulfing its victims for an estimated $32 billion in profits worldwide annually.”
Unthinkable things happen around the world today. A quick scan of the headlines is enough to weigh down the heart with reports of atrocities and tragedies and calamities and more. Here in the United States, things are far from perfect, but generally speaking, we have a measure of comfort and safety and ease compared to the war and genocide and famine and the like that other lands experience.
As a result, there are evils that we think are out there, happening to other people — not to us. I used to think about the evil of human exploitation and trafficking like that: something that happens in other places to other people but not here. Here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, that was one thing I could cross off the list of potential horrors I needed to worry about.
There are two reasons why this sort of thinking is wrong:
- Trafficking is a growing crisis around the world and in the States. Ignorance is a flimsy shield against this world’s harsh realities. Awareness is essential.
- The majority of trafficking victims may live in other lands but that doesn’t mean I am free from the responsibility or the ability to help. In fact, it is because I am free and unaffected that I have the luxury of worrying about and fighting against this evil for those who cannot.
There is a problem that I see in my own heart and in the hearts of those around me: Until I allow the reality of the crisis to carve out a place in me, it’s too easy to ignore the crisis because of the comfort and safety that I experience. It’s too easy to let distance be an excuse for inaction.
Over the past few years, the reality is finding an ever-growing place in my heart, bringing the stories of exploitation and enslavement much closer to home. I am making room inside for women and girls like Courtney, who was only 14 years old when trafficking became a reality for her.
Like many young girls caught in its snare, Courtney’s path to exploitation began when she was just 5 years old. That’s when her brother’s friend began sexually abusing her, sending her young heart and mind into a spiral of confusion and pain. Although the abuse stopped when he was caught, the damage to Courtney’s heart continued to fester because no one knew that she would need help dealing with the aftermath. Her inner-world caved in on her and the rest of her childhood was a descent deeper and deeper into a black pit of depression and isolation.
By age 14, Courtney was so lonely that she frequented online chat rooms for any scrap of companionship. That’s where she met Jake. He took a special interest in her and eventually convinced her to meet him. Courtney thought she was meeting the guy of her dreams. She didn’t know that he was about to plunge her into a two-year nightmare that was even worse than the one she had already experienced.
Jake took Courtney to a motel where he raped her. Then he invited several other men to do likewise. When Courtney tried to sneak away, Jake beat her unconscious, establishing his total control and the futility of trying to escape. This routine continued, every night like the one before — another motel, more men. For two years, Jake moved Courtney all over the state. Courtney saw hundreds of motel rooms and just as many men.
Courtney’s story happened in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States — the same country that outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude almost 150 years ago.
Perpetrators of human trafficking and sexual exploitation know the law. And they know how to cover their tracks, intimidate their victims, and work the system for personal gain. We may not see this sort of enslavement in the open, but it is there, lurking in shadows and on the fringes of society, quietly engulfing its victims for an estimated $32 billion in profits worldwide annually.1
This is no small problem, and due to human trafficking’s subversive nature, it is tough to document and measure. Advocacy and recovery organizations offer statistics from their work, although some independent researchers are concerned about inflation (either purposeful or mistaken). Despite these concerns, the reality stands: Women and girls are being enslaved in our country and around the world for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation.
The horrors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation are being addressed by a wide range of organizations around the world. The need is great, and each organization offers its own unique approach. Some directly rescue girls and women from bondage. Others help the rescued build new and vibrant lives. Still others attack the systemic issues that contribute to the crisis.
To outline how these various approaches play out, I present three advocacy and recovery organizations working on the front lines: Wellspring Living (Atlanta, Georgia), As Our Own (Western India), and She Is Safe (worldwide).
Wellspring Living works right here in the States, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the group that stepped into Courtney’s life after her two-year ordeal with Jake. Wellspring Living’s residential treatment program includes counseling, education, and life skills for the women and girls in their care.
According to stats on Wellspring’s Web site, there are about 100,000 young women in the United States who have been exploited. The average age of a child first used in prostitution is 11 to 14, with some as young as 9 years of age.1 It’s believed that as many as 17,500 people (men, women, and children) are trafficked into the United States annually.2
As Our Own works in India to prevent the enslavement of young girls who are at great risk of being exploited. The girls are adopted into the As Our Own family where they are loved as daughters, for life. Using its Adoptive-Level Care model, As Our Own cares for their daughters at the same level that we care for our own children, giving them parental nurture, guidance, and support through family life, schooling, extracurricular activities, college studies, career, marriage, family, and beyond. Each daughter has a permanent place of belonging in this loving family.
Predators in India are always on the lookout for girls who have unstable homes and broken family structures. And for girls born into the red light district because their moms are enslaved there? If these little ones aren’t rescued out by age 6 or 7, they are sold into the same fate as their mothers. That’s because little girls are in high demand at the brothels due to the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. There are approximately 10 million prostitutes in India3; an estimated 500,000 of which are children.4
She Is Safe works in trafficking hot spots to “prevent, rescue, and restore women and girls from abuse and exploitation in high risk places around the world, equipping them to build a life of freedom, faith, and a strong future.” Working in poverty-stricken areas, She Is Safe seeks to step in with holistic, faith-based initiatives to make a difference in the lives of women and girls at great risk of being trafficked. Education, job skills, emotional health, and life support systems are offered to help women and girls preyed upon by traffickers.
The stats provided by She Is Safe paint a grim picture5 for women and girls around the world. Of the 27 million adults and children in some form of bondage (forced/bonded labor or prostitution), women and girls account for 98% of those who are enslaved for sex. There are 1.6 million little girls enslaved in prostitution around the world.
Growing Awareness: The Good and Bad of It
Grasping the horrific reality of sex trafficking is no easy task. The darkness looms and the need is so great that it can paralyze us from stepping in and making a difference. We can easily get trapped in questions like “How can we free millions of people enslaved in brothels around the world?” and “How can we help the rescued enter back into regular life after all they’ve been subject to?”
If we can push beyond the overwhelming magnitude of need, we can join an organization already at work to make a tangible difference. Awareness is painful, but pain often pushes us to act. It inspires people to join current advocacy efforts or launch new ones. Plenty of creative opportunities exist for us to get involved through financial support, prayer, volunteer work, advocacy, and action.
Then there’s Passion, the annual faith-based conference for college students held in Georgia each January. In 2013, Passion announced its “End It” movement, calling students to commit to being the generation that puts an end to slavery. During the four-day conference, students donated more than $3.3 million to support 19 partner organizations working to abolish human slavery worldwide. For four days, these students were immersed in the hard, gut-wrenching truth about human slavery and sex trafficking. And that knowledge prompted them to give an astounding amount of money to support causes that could make “End It” a reality. Passion fuels the movement through social media engagement and its music tour.
Critics call this approach “slacktivism” (i.e., assuming that modern-day slavery and sexual exploitation can be eradicated by simply tweeting your support). John Sutter, however, disagrees. He notes, in a recent article at CNN, that real money has been raised and real people have been rescued. Projects and conferences like Passion are raising awareness and rallying people to action. For advocacy engagement to increase, awareness and buzz are key. More awareness by more people will produce more action and funding. That sounds good, and it is.
However, there is a downside. The very same buzz that draws attention to trafficking is the same buzz that will eventually move along to a newer cause. The newness of trafficking and all its horrors will one day become common knowledge. The buzz does plenty of good for a while, but interest and concern ride upon the winds of popularity, and once the winds change, support and interest often go with it.
But human trafficking and sexual slavery are not fads to be added to this season’s cause wardrobe. If we are to truly “End It,” we need strategic and persistent focus that doesn’t fade when the next season’s cause captures our fancy.
We must allow the buzz to change us — how we live, how we think, how we care. If we find a way to be involved long term, then our efforts won’t fizzle out when the buzz fades. What if we supported economic development programs that lift women and girls out of abject poverty, thereby protecting them from predators? What if we sent a girl to college, giving her the chance to reach her full, God-given potential? What if we helped survivors gain healing and skills to make a new life?
Let’s not waste the buzz. Let’s use it to make a lasting difference.
Transformation Is More Than a Rescue
The desire to see human trafficking and slavery in all its forms eradicated is noble. Upon hearing the shocking stats and the heart-wrenching stories of women like Courtney, we should be moved to act. Advocacy groups are doing what they can in the face of great need, but the truth is, many more of us as individuals will need to come alongside these hard-working groups if “End It” is to become a reality.
This is, in part, why groups that use communications that engage the heart and elicit an emotional reaction are the ones that stir people to act and get involved. I think of it as shock and awe communications.
The shock comes through the staggering stats. Learning about the plight of women and girls both near and far jolts us from our insulated bubbles to face reality. The numbers, details, and stories compel us to do something to make a difference. Getting people involved, however, is not the same as keeping people involved. With major social ills such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation, the numbers are so overwhelming that it can feel like our efforts are but a drop compared to the ocean of need.
That’s where shock’s counterpart comes in. To keep support partners engaged and encouraged in the ongoing fight, a bit of awe is needed. Stories of heroic rescue give us a sense of hope that we are doing something meaningful to push back against the evil we see in the world.
However, if the day of rescue is held up as the end goal of our support, we are applying a bandage to a gaping wound in need of serious attention. Bondage is just one woe of exploitation and enslavement. Setting a slave free is only the first step. She also needs emotional help and healing. She needs to catch up on education, develop life skills, learn how to live, and find work. Here in the States, recovery programs walk with the rescued to help them establish a new life. In other countries, such programs are nonexistent and societal prejudices make it difficult for the rescued to move past the trauma, thereby placing them at risk of further exploitation and enslavement.
Celebrating a rescue is good. We must fight against enslavement in all its forms. But rescue is not enough. We must be willing to dig in for the long haul, for the slow and steady work of helping the rescued establish a vibrant life while also fighting against the societal norms that produce a demand for enslavement in the first place.
Rescuing an individual is good. Let’s free as many as we can.
Transforming our world is crucial. Unless the social construct changes, there will always be another individual to rescue.
After the shock and awe, we are left with our own thoughts and convictions, our own soul-searching to figure out what we might do to help the Courtneys of our world.
Christians especially must consider God’s mandate in Scripture to care for the orphan (James 1:27), to correct oppression and bring justice to the fatherless (Isa. 1:17), to loose the bonds of wickedness and set the oppressed free (Isa. 58:6), and to show mercy to those attacked (Luke 10:36–37).
How might you stand in the gap to show mercy toward the exploited and enslaved? Here are two first-action steps to take:
- Pray for a Heart that Hurts: Ask God to break your heart for the things that break His. When your heart is willing to engage the heaviness of the human trafficking crisis, you will be sensitive to whatever part God has for you to play. Pray regularly for God to raise up shields for the vulnerable, to provide a way of escape for those enslaved, and to pour out His Spirit upon society so the demand for human slaves will dry up.
- Partner with an Advocacy Group: Do some research to find a group you want to support. Your partnership will mean so much as you pray, give gifts, and spread the word of the good work being done. In time, you may also feel led to take a more active role as an advocacy partner, a volunteer, or a mission team member. Ask what the group needs, and be willing to truly serve by giving what’s needed rather than what you think will be helpful.
A Demonstration of Love
The crisis of human trafficking and sexual exploitation is no small matter. Much work and effort are needed in order to see those numbers shrink and to establish new foundations to the systemic issues that fuel the demand.
Truly, this is Gospel work, being the hands and feet of Jesus by demonstrating the love of the Father to a world in desperate need of His care. This is what God’s redemption in us looks like: we become vessels of His mercy to a world in need.
3. Human Rights Watch, Robert I. Freidman, “India’s Shame: Sexual Slavery and Political Corruption Are Leading to An AIDS Catastrophe,” The Nation, 8 April 1996.