AJWS Expands Fight Against Human Trafficking


AJWS Expands Fight Against Human Trafficking

October 16, 2007

For millions of women and children living in poverty, the promise of a better life is a lure they cannot help but follow. Assurances of well-paying jobs elsewhere are readily given and eagerly believed. It is only after they arrive in a new environment – where they do not know the language, the culture or the people – that they understand the reality of their situation: the smiling "employment agent" was really a broker who has handed them over to traffickers in human lives, who in turn have sold them abroad as sex slaves.

Sometimes, however, victims unwittingly deliver themselves directly into sexual bondage. Women hoping to pull themselves out of poverty will gather all they own to pay their way to a nearby country where they believe their fortunes will change. But all too often, they find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar place with no way to return home; only the sex traffickers offer a place to live and work – though at a steep price.

Conditions vary for the traffickers' prey, from the inhumane to the inhuman. Some women are forced to perform at strip clubs and sexually service their male customers; some are made to walk the streets or work in brothels. Others are simply locked away, sometimes for years, and raped at their captors' will until they escape, are sold, or die. Children of both sexes also share this fate, though the experience quickly robs them of anything like childhood.

UNICEF estimates that trafficking in persons – for sex as well as labor – is the third largest global criminal activity, behind only drugs and weapons. For years, activists believed organized crime was behind trafficking, but small, decentralized networks actually make up the bulk of the "trade."

And a lucrative trade it is. The one-time cost of obtaining a poor woman or child is small compared with the long-term profits they bring in as captive sex workers who, as involuntary criminal accomplices, are deprived of any legal, social or economic protections. Indeed, victims are told they must work to "pay back" the costs of their transport and living expenses to their captors, who already enjoy a tremendous profit margin on their "investment." Sadly, once trafficking victims settle their bogus debt, they are sold to someone else who demands they work off their new "debt."

On the occasions when law enforcement does shut down brothels staffed by trafficked persons, they often treat the victims as prostitutes and criminals, not as people who have been abducted and abused, and in need of help. Instead, they are often sent to prison or deported.

Trafficked persons also endure intense physical and psychological suffering. Many contract sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, but have no way to access medical care. On top of that, their captors beat or torture them to force them to work more, or as a punishment for resisting. Those who are fortunate enough to escape captivity usually experience severe emotional problems in addition to any diseases or injuries they come away with.

AJWS has been funding local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that fight sex trafficking in Asia, where the problem is especially acute. AJWS is continuing one Cambodian NGO's funding for a third year, and has just announced grants to two more in Thailand. The activities of these NGOs represent just a small sample of the anti-trafficking work supported by AJWS.

"The undeniable fact about sex trafficking is that poverty is its root cause," says Elizabeth Toder of the International Programs Department of AJWS. "Poor women and children are the raw materials for this trade, so they must be empowered to take control of their lives before someone else does. Access to economic and educational opportunities is the best way for this to happen.

"But they can't do it alone. No one can," she adds. "Societies and governments must also be aware of the role poverty plays in this modern-day slave trade, and take immediate and concrete steps to end it."

AJWS supports several interrelated approaches to empowering current and potential trafficking victims by funding local grassroots organizations that provide training, education and counseling. For example, our project partners implement livelihood training to provide sustainable economic alternatives to false promises of high-paying jobs abroad. In addition, they develop community awareness campaigns on the issue of trafficking, as well as clandestinely educating current trafficking victims about their rights to seek assistance. When possible, our project partners also provide legal, medical, and psychosocial help to victims.

The Coalition to Address Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia (COSECAM) is a network of 23 Cambodian NGOs committed to ending the sex trade in their country. Their activities range from advocacy to rehabilitating women and children victimized by the sex trade.

EMPOWER Mai Sai, a new AJWS project partner, is a Thai NGO that mounts mobile campaigns that educate and empower women who are already involved in the sex trade, as well as women who are considering sex work due to a lack of other viable options. In particular, EMPOWER works with women who are fleeing the civil war in neighboring Burma.

The other new AJWS grantee, the Hill Tribe Area Development Foundation (HADF), works with the hill tribe people of northern Thailand. Their youth are flocking to urban centers, and are finding themselves targets for sex traffickers in this new, unfamiliar environment. HADF educates tribal communities about how to protect community members from trafficking and other forms of exploitation, and helps them to create income-generation opportunities. In addition, HADF is working with an extensive network of NGOs throughout the region to increase awareness of the effects of trafficking.

AJWS is committed to fighting the causes that force women and children into sex work, and is dedicated to providing them with realistic alternatives to the sex industry. By working with new and established project partners who are addressing this problem on the ground, AJWS is helping to bring empowerment and hope to those most in need of it.