Faculty Post: Raising Awareness about Human Trafficking, at Home and Abroad

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

This week, the Law School hosted a series of events to recognize Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  The events were co-sponsored by the Law School’s own Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy and Domestic Violence Institute, along with several partners within Northeastern University:  the College of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Human Services Program; the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Bouvé College of Health Sciences’ Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice; University Health and Counseling Services’ ViSION program; and student groups Not For Sale and UNICEF.  The fact that these diverse partners share an interest in raising awareness around this issue speaks to the important and cross-cutting nature of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a global pandemic of modern-day slavery, most commonly for the purposes of sexual slavery, forced labor, or sexual exploitation.  Human trafficking has received attention nationally and internationally; local efforts have been mobilizing recently with the 2011 passage of An Act Relative to the Commercial Exploitation of People and the 2012 formation of the Massachusetts Interagency Human Trafficking Policy Task Force, who issued a statewide report in Fall 2013.

The series of events this week was an effort to raise awareness and mobilize the Northeastern campus in the fight against human trafficking.  On Monday, January 27, we hosted a film screening and panel of local human trafficking experts and activists.  The film “Not My Life,” explores the epidemic of trafficking across the globe, from forced garbage picking in India, to the global sex tourism industry in Cambodia, to domestic servitude in Washington, D.C.  The survivors told stories marked by torture and cruelty, but also by remarkable courage and resilience.  Following the film, our panelists shared their perspectives on local efforts to combat trafficking.  The panel came from governmental agencies, NGOs, legal services, and academia, but they shared a common interest in developing a community coordinated response to this complex issue.  They discussed some of the challenges inherent in that effort.  Most notable is the stigma that hinders identification of the problem locally; many resist the idea that slavery and sexual exploitation are happening in their communities. The difficult truth, as the film and our panelists illustrated, is that trafficking is a reality that we must address at home and abroad.

On Wednesday, January 29, we were fortunate enough to host Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children.  Ms. Dettmeijer’s mandate is to report independently on the nature and extent of human trafficking and sexual violence against children in the Netherlands, and to examine the effect of government policies to stem this exploitation.  Her lecture, entitled “Legal Challenges and Strategies for Combatting Sexual Violence against Children,” focused on the epidemic of child pornography. Ms. Dettmeijer discussed international and domestic law which has focused on restitution for victims and holding perpetrators accountable.  The lecture was framed by a larger question, which many of us who do violence prevention work often struggle with:  Does the available legal framework fit the phenomenon?  The use (and constant evolution) of technology further complicates the problem, making it more difficult to identify and track down perpetrators and making it harder for lawmakers and law enforcement to keep pace.  It’s also incredibly difficult to prevent further dissemination of abusive material.  For victims of sexual abuse who are recorded for cyber consumption, the abusive act itself is just the beginning of the crime.   These victims live in constant fear knowing that their trauma is being traded online indefinitely.  As one victim stated in her case for restitution, “I live every day with the horrible knowledge that many people somewhere are watching the most terrifying moments of my life and taking grotesque pleasure in them.” (Cited in an amicus brief to the case of Paroline v. United States, a Supreme Court case which addresses a victim’s ability to obtain compensation for crimes committed against him or her.)

While Wednesday’s lecture focused on one aspect of a larger problem of global sexual exploitation, Ms. Dettmeijer highlighted the connections between the dual mandates of her work on human trafficking and sexual violence against children.  Both are characterized by elements of coercion and duress, and by the creation of a dependency relationship between the victim and perpetrator.  The perpetrator’s control over the victim is most often maintained by actual or threatened physical violence.

Yet the common undercurrent which most resonated with me was the idea of vulnerability.  All of our speakers this week stressed the idea that traffickers prey on the vulnerable.  Children are by nature vulnerable.  They are coerced, stolen, or sold into slavery due to others’ desperation.  Other victims are recruited into trafficking operations by fraud:  promises of a better life, of economic prosperity, and of international travel.  These victims may be homeless and lacking family or support systems, and they are overwhelmingly suffering from poverty.

So what more can we be doing to combat human trafficking in our communities, locally and globally? Anti-trafficking efforts are not just about rescuing victims and prosecuting perpetrators—prevention is critical.  If we can identify the factors that make victims more vulnerable to trafficking, shouldn’t we be doing more to address those factors, to stem the supply of those who may be victimized?  And how can we better educate our children, lawmakers, and communities that more must be done to stop human trafficking?  Arming ourselves with knowledge and awareness of how this issue affects us all is one step in the right direction.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls and texts from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.  Call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733) to report a tip, to connect with anti-trafficking resources, or to get more information.

For local anti-trafficking and sexual violence prevention services, contact the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-841-8371, or contact My Life My Choice at 617-779-2179.

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