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Forum aims to stop human trafficking

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Julia Vail

RALEIGH, N.C. – As part of an effort to improve the lives of women and girls in North Carolina, a group of Raleigh women is sponsoring a community forum to raise awareness of human trafficking in the state.

The session, which will be held Jan. 12 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Commons Building in Raleigh, is organized by Soroptimist of Raleigh, a women’s volunteer organization.

Though North Carolina is not typically thought of as a hotbed of human trafficking, it has many of the necessary elements: agriculture, military presence and several interstate highways, says Pamela Sinclair, president of the group.

“People will say, ‘We don’t have that here,'” she says. “But when you see runaway kids being prostituted, that’s human trafficking. If you have illegal aliens being brought into sweatshops, that’s human trafficking.”

The presence of several interstate highways, as well as low-paying, labor-intensive jobs, creates an environment where human trafficking can flourish, Sinclair says.

“We have I-95 running through the state, so it’s a corridor just like it is for drug and gun trafficking,” she says. “We also have a lot of industries where lower skill levels are required, such as meat processing and tobacco picking.”

Participants in the forum will include Elaine Marshall, North Carolina secretary of state, as well as North Carolina Senator Ellie Kinnaird, who sponsored legislation in 2006 that made human trafficking a crime in North Carolina.  

Noela Thiess, founder and executive director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships and former mayor of Sanibel, Fla., also will speak at the forum.

“Her goal is to create and sustain community groups that will continue the work of combating human trafficking,” Sinclair says.

Some of the organizations that will be represented in the panels include the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Interact of Wake County.

After the Jan. 12 forum, Soroptimist will hold smaller discussion groups to deal with more detailed aspects of solving the human-trafficking problem, including law enforcement, legislation and social services.

The forums are part of a larger effort by Soroptimist International, a volunteer organization of professional women aimed at improving the lives of women and girls worldwide.

The name Soroptimist, derived from the Latin word “soror,” meaning sister, and “optima,” meaning best, is loosely translated as “the best for women.”

Though the organization was founded in Oakland, Calif., in 1921, it now is headquartered in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Currently there are nearly 95,000 Soroptimist members in about 120 countries and territories throughout the world.

Soroptimist is the only all-volunteer women’s organization that works in conjunction with the United Nations. Many Soroptimist members attend meetings of various U.N. agencies and programs throughout the world, and the organization holds the status of general consultant for the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

The Raleigh branch, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007, currently has 37 members.

During the last fiscal year, the Raleigh branch raised more than $35,000 through various fundraising events, such as selling poinsettias during the holidays and monitoring houses during the annual Parade of Homes.

As part of its ongoing effort to improve the lives of women worldwide, Soroptimist of Raleigh also aims to put an end to domestic violence. For the past year, the group has worked with Johnny Lee of Peace@Work, an organization that does research and advocacy about domestic violence in the workplace.

Soroptimist volunteers run data and do administrative tasks for Lee, who speaks at workshops throughout the U.S. to raise awareness about violence in the workplace.

“We really emphasize prevention,” Lee says. “If they’re helped early on, many of these conflicts can be prevented or mitigated.”

In partnership with Soroptimist, Peace@Work was able to donate over $1,000 in October to a victim of assault to help pay for medical bills and lost wages.

Soroptimist also donated more than 100 stuffed animals to the Wake County Sheriff’s Department during the most recent phase of its “Officer Bear” program. When children are embroiled in domestic-violence disputes, police officers give them the stuffed animals to make them feel more at ease.

Through its “Christmas Angel” project, Soroptimist members gave Christmas gifts to 56 children in Robinwood, a lower-income neighborhood in southeast Raleigh.

This year, Soroptimist also included gift bags for 18 mothers and donated snacks for after-school programs in the neighborhood.

“What we’re trying to do,” Sinclair says, “is get beyond awareness into action.”

To register for the forum, call 919.833.2490; the deadline for registration is Jan. 9.

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