By Donna Bickford
This spring, a conference in Chapel Hill will take aim at sex trafficking in North Carolina and beyond, with the goal of raising awareness about and preventing this growing problem.
On April 3 and 4, the Carolina Women’s Center, in partnership with several other campus and community units, will host “Combating Sex Trafficking: Prevention and Intervention in North Carolina and Worldwide.”
The U.S. government estimates 600,000 to 800,000 individuals are trafficked across international borders each year and exploited through forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.
Of those, the State Department estimates 14,500 to 17,500 people are brought to the U.S., and the FBI in Charlotte believes almost one in four end up in the Southeast.
Eighty percent to 90 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls who are trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Trafficking is a hugely profitable criminal enterprise, producing $19 billion annually, according to Interpol.
The conference in April was planned to combat this problem by focusing on several areas, including sensitive advocacy for survivors; shutting down demand for commercial sexual exploitation; the role of the travel and tourism industry; legal research and advocacy; local prevention models and efforts; and the media’s impact in educating the public.
It will provide training to first responders, educators, medical staff and the legal community, with the purpose of developing a working plan for North Carolina to raise awareness, help victims, prosecute traffickers and end sex trafficking.
A complex problem
Women become sex-trafficking victims through multiple avenues, most related to fraud and deception.
They may be recruited with promises of well-paying jobs as a hostess, nanny or dancer. Some are forcibly kidnapped.
Trafficking victims are subjected to physical, emotional and psychological abuse and are usually deprived of their identification documents and denied access to the money they generate.
Their movements are regulated and monitored, and they often are controlled by threats of increased force, death or violence against their families.
While the root cause of trafficking is the continuing and incessant demand for cheap labor and access to the bodies of women and children, issues like economic hardship, political instability and inadequate law enforcement in victims’ home countries create fertile ground for traffickers.
Proper treatment of trafficking victims and accountability for traffickers is difficult for several reasons.
Stereotypes and misconceptions about victims create an inhospitable climate for the provision of services to victims and for prosecution of traffickers.
And because prostitution is often seen as a “victimless” crime, it rarely occurs to users of such women that they many indeed have been trafficked.
As with survivors of sexual assault and intimate-partner violence, survivors of sex trafficking are likely to have internalized shame and self-blame due to the work they have been forced to perform.
They have been taught to fear law enforcement, and are often terrified of their traffickers. There may be language barriers as well.
And while mental-health treatment, medical care, housing and job retraining may all be needed, most municipalities are not equipped to provide the necessary coordinated case management for survivors.
North Carolina’s vulnerability to trafficking is enhanced by several factors, including its military bases, its location on the I-95 corridor, and its large undocumented immigrant population.
In response, North Carolina has passed state-level legislation that creates criminal penalties for trafficking, provides protections for victims of human trafficking, and provides instructions to the North Carolina Justice Academy to develop trafficking training protocols for law enforcement.
North Carolina also is the home of RIPPLE: The North Carolina Trafficking Task Force, an interdisciplinary group of professionals who have expertise in the topic of human trafficking.
Members include representatives from law enforcement, service providers, legal advocates and providers, and other allies.
Through committed groups such as these, and through education and outreach efforts like the upcoming conference in April, we can begin to make a difference.
Donna M. Bickford is director of the Carolina Women’s Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Center works to eradicate sex trafficking by generating knowledge about trafficking practices and raising public awareness about the human rights violations caused by trafficking.
For information about the conference, visit the Center’s website.