Wide eyed, mouth gaping, I listened as church missionaries recalled the horrors of human trafficking in South Asia. They painted vivid tales of numerous nameless women in red light districts, children forced to make bricks, girls selling themselves for their impoverished families; this remote world of deplorable abuses seemed untouchable.
The heart wrenching tales of international human trafficking raised goosebumps along my arms, yet I hadn’t realized how this dark market reached my own local community.
Just a few weeks ago, in late July, police in Bellevue found a woman trapped against her will and forced into sex work in an apartment complex on 108th Ave NE. I had driven down this road countless times on the way to run errands- to meet friends, to shop at the mall. My eyes had flitted past the high rise buildings, never once imagining that just beyond the glass paneling could be individuals forced into modern day slavery.
While we easily associate human trafficking with foreign nations, we need to recognize its local impact and our capacity to create change right in our own backyards.
Kelly Mangiaracina, the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s Task Force Coordinator for King County, explains that Washington actually has a fairly high rate of trafficking due to factors such as “access to ports, access to international borders, and… a lot of money in the area.”
I had mistakenly associated human trafficking only with areas of extreme poverty, especially with the common cases of women and children being exploited in third world countries. The reality is that wealth in an area attracts trafficking rings as well. Rather than solely thinking of more impoverished nations as breeding grounds for trafficking, we should learn to recognize it in our own communities and turn to help local efforts.
But addressing trafficking isn’t as simple as just conducting police raids. The narrative of victims simply being snatched from their homes glosses over the nuances of the issue. I once assumed that victims remained trapped simply because they feared physical abuse from their traffickers, but this was a vastly oversimplified view.
The reality is that, according to UNICEF, “Traffickers use love and affection as control mechanisms, and those victimized might not even self-identify as victims.” Victims are often drawn to these dysfunctional relationships due to personal hardships. The most vulnerable individuals are the ones who face adversities such as familial abuse, poverty, and a lack of education and job opportunities. These push and pull factors complicate the process of preventing exploitation and freeing victims.
People of color are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Rights4Girls, an organization combating gender based violence against women, notes that “black children account for 57% of all juvenile prostitution arrests – more than any other racial group.” Cheryl Nelson Butler of the UCLA Law Review reports, “Hyper-sexualized stereotypes about minority teens continues to drive their prostitution and sexual exploitation. Lawmakers presume that minors have consented to prostitution even when the minor is below the age of consent.” Minorities are less likely to be recognized as victims, and instead treated as criminals due to persisting racial myths.
Trafficking isn’t a standalone problem. Racial and socioeconomic disparities perpetuate the circumstances that drive victims into these dangerous circumstances in the first place.
On that Sunday at church, my eyes were opened to the devastating effects of human trafficking. But the issue is more than a sad story of a place far from where we live. Exploitation can exist right within our own neighborhoods, and its causes are intertwined with deep reaching systemic inequalities.
Recognizing this issue’s intersectional nature can make trafficking seem even more overwhelming. But an honest consideration of trafficking’s local and pervasive nature should instead motivate us to contribute to the fight to end enslavement.
Personally, I’ve volunteered with several organizations by giving speeches at fundraisers, designing flyers, and researching anti-trafficking programs. Whether by donation, volunteering, or any other form of contribution, we can all take action.
Together, let’s contribute to creating a world where one day no person will be stripped of the freedom they deserve.