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Will A Sting, A Court Award And A Protest Help Stop Global Sex Trafficking?

This month, reports have come out that Laurie Holden, an actress from The Walking Dead TV show, had volunteered to be part of a sting in Colombia to entrap a local trafficker who sold girls as young as 12 into sex slavery. (Holden's job was to keep the girls distracted while the sting honchos were paying – and secretly filming — the trafficker.)

Last week, a British court awarded 100,000 pounds to a deaf-mute Pakistani girl who was brought to England at age 10 or so and kept as a slave by a wealthy couple in Salford and repeatedly raped for nine years.

Brittanie Richardson, an American activist in Kenya, is currently speaking out about the practice of enslaving children in Nairobi brothels.

These three stories help prove Andrea Matolcsi's point. She's the trafficking officer for Equality Now, a global organization that fights for the rights of women and girls. She says that trafficking in humans for sexual exploitation and other reasons "really is happening in every single country." The victims are often seeking to escape poverty. The result is an industry that generates yearly "illegal profits" of $150 billion,according to an International Labor Organization report.

Matolcsi spoke with Goats and Soda to give some perspective on the issue.

First of all, what is trafficking? Can you explain what it involves?

It takes various forms of exploitation for labor, for organs [to be harvested], for forced criminality and begging. At Equality Now, we focus on sexual exploitation. That's prostitution, but also pornography and lap dancing, various parts of the sex industry.

And what does it mean when someone is trafficked?

It's where organized crime generally takes victims from poorer countries to better-off countries. People in better-off countries have the money to pay for them. And there's a demand for them [in the sex industry]. If there were not very, very many people – the overwhelming majority of them men – paying for sex with women and girls and boys, there wouldn't be demand for them. Trafficking wouldn't be so profitable.

By organized crime, do you mean the Mafia?

It would generally be what we think of as the Mafia — at least, that is the situation in Europe. The Taliban also buys and sells women and girls, as have ISIS and Boko Haram.

The Taliban?

Yes, we are aware the Taliban is engaging in sex trafficking. It is possible they are engaging in other forms of trafficking as well.

Are there certain countries with especially high levels of trafficking?

India, Thailand, the Philippines. I would say the traffickers there are mainly locals. But again, this is something that happens all over the world. American kids from a neglected household or in foster care are vulnerable to exploitation. There's little oversight.

How many people are victims of trafficking?

I think for global figures, you're looking at millions. If you look at one country, look at the United Kingdom. The authorities recognize a couple thousand [victims]. But figures are very tricky. It's an illegal activity and hard to get figures on. Authorities do have difficulty identifying victims. If someone is kept indoors, it's more difficult to identify them than individuals in street prostitution.

How are these girls and women captured and forced into sex work?

There are various routes. One could just be deception. Sometimes adults and young people are told they'll be given a job in another country, in a café or restaurant, and they're forced into prostitution. It could be with threats against their family. Sometimes there's an initiation by rape. They rape the victim until the victim is not resisting any more. Or [the trafficker] could say, "How else are you going to feed your family?" Poverty and economic coercion are very powerful. You don't have to be chained to a radiator [to become a sex slave].

Any other techniques?

Pimps can sometimes begin what looks like a romantic relationship with a woman and get her to go abroad or to another city in her country, and say, "For our common future, we need a bit of money, will you do this for me once or twice?" And it turns into months and years.

How can the world put a halt to such practices?

We're advocating for what we call the Swedish or the Nordic model. It's a set of laws and policies that decriminalizes people in prostitution but criminalizes the purchase of sex. The police must look for victims and perpetrators. And the Swedish model mandates services for people in prostitution. They are people with very complex needs. They have issues around housing, trauma, drug addiction.

Are perpetrators nervous about being caught?

The reason people think they can get away with this is that they can. There's a feeling this is a high-profit, low-risk endeavor. The more they see a clampdown — a trafficker given 20 years, not just a two-year sentence — that will act more and more [as a deterrent].

Are there women who have escaped or been rescued from sex slavery and gone on to become activists?

One great activist is Rachel Moran from Ireland, who's written a book called Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. [There's a] myth that the men driving this industry of paying for sex are lonely, alcoholic men who don't have access to sex. She talked about how many times she's been in a car and there's a baby seat in the back. Half of men who pay for sex do have partners.

What else has she talked about?

When buyers call up, the first question is, "What's the youngest girl they can give me?" They're not talking 18. They're talking 16, 14, 13. Rachel and others have recounted experiences where, if they would say their age and it would be 13 or 14, that would make the guy finish much quicker.

Because the man was afraid of being caught with a minor?

No, it was a turn-on that she was a child.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.