January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, but my wish is that we all work to make a real difference every month and every day of the year. I am a survivor of child sex trafficking. But there are other forms of modern-day slavery, like labor trafficking, that are just as evil. Human trafficking affects vulnerable women, men, children, and adults in both developed and emerging countries. Whether it is a 12-year-old runaway — like I was — or a 35-year-old man looking for a better job, vulnerable people are exploited and coerced every day.
Children who have been trafficked — as I was — often do not recognize themselves as victims. It took me decades to begin to see myself as a victim. The manipulation, exploitation, and fear put in place by my trafficker set about normalizing my trauma and also convinced me that it was all my fault.
My greatest hope and purpose in life today is to reach others in as many ways as I can so that they may never have to experience what I did for so long. We must ask important questions in order to really begin to make a difference. Here are a few of the most important questions to be asking.
1. What causes human trafficking?
Although human trafficking is ultimately about supply and demand, human trafficking is an evil that gets its start in many different ways. Racism, gender and educational inequality, and any and all causes of vulnerability perpetuate the trafficking of people.
2. Who are we forgetting in the discussion and reporting of human trafficking victims?
While media focus on sex trafficking of children is crucial, it’s important to focus on human trafficking of all populations. Labor-trafficked men are often underreported and not discussed. Many undocumented men in agricultural settings are exploited for their labor. Until we solve the issue of undocumented men who are looking for work and trying to feed their hungry families, these men will continue to be taken advantage of and trafficked.
All victims of sex trafficking are reluctant to speak up, but for boys and men it sometimes feels even worse. Many are unwilling to come forward to service providers — doctors, social workers, counselors, and court officials — due to feelings of shame and social stigma. Even if victims do come forward, what services are available? According to one of the authors of a recent study on labor trafficking, “There isn’t a single shelter in the entire United States dedicated to male trafficking victims.”
Without solid statistics on male victims of trafficking, funders are unlikely to donate to shelters tailored to the needs of male survivors. If you don’t have funding then you’re not helping victims and they are revictimized.
3. How can we support trafficking survivors?
We must learn to discuss and report human trafficking in all of its forms and to think outside the box in terms of eliminating modern-day slavery. For those who seek to provide services for victims of human trafficking, I believe two important issues must be addressed before any type of restoration or assistance can happen.
First, a complete deprogramming of the victim-trafficker trauma bond must occur. At first contact with a victim, a complete assessment of the victim by an expert in trauma-based therapy needs to happen. Second, any criminal records the victim may have received while being trafficked must be vacated. All criminal records should be cleared in order for a trafficked person to move forward in life.
Through collaboration, innovation, and a greater understanding of the root causes of the issue, we can all work together to eradicate human trafficking for future generations.
Today I believe I am more than a victim or a victor. I know I am a valuable, contributing person in the fight against human trafficking, and I ask everyone to join me in this effort. Maybe one day there will be no need for a human trafficking awareness month.
Barbara Amaya is an author, advocate, and survivor. For more information about her projects and speaking engagements, visit barbaraamaya.com. Follow her on Twitter @barbaraamaya4.