human trafficking

It’s Time to Tell the Truth About Human Rights

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Recently, several human rights groups noted that the U.S. State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. 

As a human rights worker, I know it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and to not falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.

Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.

Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports — or, for that matter, any human rights reports — is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved. Once the U.S. is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Diplomats Weaken Results of Annual Human Trafficking Report

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Yesterday, Reuters reported that top bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department overruled experts and analysts by successfully urging that 14 countries be upgraded in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) due to their strategic importance to the U.S. This report, released last week, evaluates how well 188 countries are fighting human trafficking by ranking countries in three tiers. These rankings are taken seriously in the U.S. government and around the world, with related impact on tradepublic perception, and diplomatic relations.

Upgraded countries include those that the United States wants to be friendly with for diplomatic reasons (such as Cuba or China) but also countries such as Malaysia, which could not be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade treaty, if it was ranked poorly in the TIP report.

How the Vatican Links Human Trafficking, Climate Change, and God

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Sunset over the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Photo via Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock.com

On July 21 and 22, the Vatican hosts two conferences on human trafficking and climate change, bringing the mayors of major cities — including several in the U.S. — to Rome for the events. What do human trafficking and climate change have to do with each other? And what does Catholicism have to do with them? Let us explain.

Q: Why is the Vatican concerned with human trafficking and climate change?

A: If Pope Francis has two pet issues, they are human trafficking and climate change. Since the first year of his papacy he has spoken against human trafficking, calling it “a crime against humanity” and lamenting it as modern slavery. It’s an even bet that when the pope addresses the United Nations in late September he will hammer it as one of the crucial issues of our time. Ditto on climate change. In June, the pontiff published his encyclical — the highest teaching of the church — on climate change.

“Our home is being ruined and that hurts everyone, especially the poorest among us,” Francis said just before the publication of the encyclical.

Restoring Dignity in the Midst of Poverty and Human Trafficking

Shirley, an employee at Dignity Coconuts. Photo courtesy of Dignity.

I love the story of Shirley. Her family was struggling to survive in the Philippines—a nation plagued with poverty and modern-day slavery. Her husband Ramir took whatever small jobs he could to help the family, but without land, his only options were to work helping on a rice farm or a fishing boat. The pay was irregular and unsustainable, so he made the tough choice to look for work in a bigger city and send money back to Shirley and their three kids. Shirley applied to work at Dignity. She was skeptical as she had never worked with a team and doubted her abilities. When Dignity hired her, it changed her life and her family. Shirley was able to make a consistent income from Dignity. The cycle of poverty and human trafficking was stopped in its tracks.

Learning from Undaunted Women

Three figures forming a heart. Image by VectorFrenzy / Shutterstock

Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.

I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.

I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.

Fighting Human Trafficking...and Learning to Love Myself Along the Way

Vintage Typewriter. Photo via Micha / Shutterstock.com

Today, I am the Managing Director of Freedom a la Cart, a social enterprise that offers employment, workforce development, and supportive services to local, adult survivors of human trafficking. The women that I work with are victims of unimaginable trauma and abuse. They are also the strongest, most resilient women I know. Through their words and actions they continue to teach me the power of loving oneself.

Because here is my deepest, darkest secret—the one that I never speak about. The one that I shove deep down and hope that no one ever learns about.

I struggle to love myself. 

I am the boss, the director, a caretaker, an advocate for social justice. But I don’t love myself, and I struggle with self-worth daily. I am a perfectionist and constantly feel that I am “not enough.”

It wasn’t until my 30th year of life that I realized how broken and human I was. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I was doing a terrible job of loving myself and realized I could not truly love these survivors until I loved myself.

All too often, advocates and activists present themselves as superheroes, rescuing the poor and defenseless. We hide our fear, our guilt, our shame, our self-loathing, because we are supposed to be the strong ones. We are supposed to have all the answers.  And yet what is demanded of us isn’t perfection, but rather our faithfulness and willingness to be vulnerable. 

On Chastity and Revictimization

City of God / Photo via The Folio Society

Augustine’s principle of avoiding revictimization and providing care can be applied to those who are sexually exploited. As my colleague Lani Prunés points out, the federal government and most states have Safe Harbor Laws which treat trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals.

These victims didn’t violate their own chastity and, therfore, are not guilty. But an unfortunate number of states don’t provide trafficking victims immunity from prosecution or adequately fund reintegration services. In so doing, we continue to maintain the shame-based morality of Greco-Roman culture in which the victim of exploitation is responsible for the sin and crime of human trafficking.

Legal protections are essential to aid reintegration, but moral protections are also necessary to support trafficking survivors. By funding recovery programs, we can learn from Augustine the value of not blaming the victim. Victims should be given the help they need to reintegrate into society (as organizations such as FAIR girlsCourtney’s House, or End Trafficking are doing), rather than leaving them vulnerable to returning to a dangerous and degrading form of life.

If we allow people to be shamed or forced into crime through a lack of viable alternatives, we are morally culpable like the Greco-Roman society which taught women that their life was only worth as much as their physical purity.

'Nuns on the Underground Railroad'

The way forward railway. Photo via hxdyl / Shutterstock.com

While some people may have heard of the great work of Nuns on the Bus to engage people on pressing social issues, there’s also the “Nuns on the Underground Railroad”—a quiet movement of nuns working together to restore dignity and healing for victims of labor and sex trafficking across the nation and the world...

For several years now, Catholic nuns have been proactive in preventing sex trafficking before, during, and after major sporting events like the Super Bowl by raising public awareness and conducting personal visits to hotels to alert them to the signs of human trafficking. Nuns have also placed full-page ads in airline magazines to educate the public about the dangers of child trafficking.

A fundamental theological and scriptural principle for Christians is that each human person is made in the image and likeness of God. This belief in the imago Dei helps us to see the face of God even when the person doubts her own beauty and worth because of oppression. “Nuns on the Underground Railroad” seeks to restore a person’s sense of dignity and beauty through two rails of freedom: healing through programs and shelters and empowerment through education and employment.

As we move toward the Lenten season, the prophet Isaiah reminds us: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6)

How is God moving your heart as you awaken to the stories of human trafficking victims? What action can you take for your enslaved sister and brother? What will you bring to your faith community to stir up concern? One single action to educate others and liberate the oppressed strengthens freedom throughout the world. As our mission affirms, “Ending slavery is everyone’s work.”

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

An image of "Charina" / Photograph © International Justice Mission

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that modern-day slavery is a thriving, lucrative, global business. There are more slaves alive today than during the entire 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Human trafficking generates about $150 billion in profits every year. And 1 in 3 trafficking victims are children.

The statistics are staggering.

For me, it was a single story that moved me through the numbers to a place where I could take action. I heard about Charina* when I joined International Justice Mission. She was one of the first girls we helped rescue in Cebu, Philippines.

Charina was 13 when she was sold for sex.

Her family was very poor, and she had dropped out of school in fourth grade. Her mother was the first one who sold her. For the next couple years, pimps took turns selling her from street corners and seedy piers. They earned extra because she looked so young.

Charina was finally freed from this harsh cycle of violence in 2007. She was addicted to drugs, pregnant and unable to trust the people who wanted to help her. The work of freedom was just beginning.  

My colleagues started meeting regularly with Charina. She needed professional care and a customized plan to meet her unique and complex needs. She needed trauma-focused counseling. She needed to learn how to trust others and to believe in herself once again.

When I first heard her story and saw a photo of Charina—her bright eyes, her small frame—my first reaction was anger. This young woman should never have suffered in the many ways she has.

And that anger is right. It’s not fair.

Charina’s story has illuminated another reality for me, a more hopeful one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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