Politics & Policy

Emancipation 2006

Saving innocents from modern-day slavery (a work in progress).

On September 2003, President George W. Bush started something of a sexual revolution.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, the president, known more popularly by left-wing groups as the man who would “turn back the clock on women’s rights,” challenged his fellow leaders to crack down on the sex trade in their countries, promising to lead by example at home.

George W. Bush is waging a war on modern-day slavery with a winning plan for success, involving an essential ingredient: building coalitions. And what was once under most of our radars is now a fight that so many are now involved in that it’s impossible to give them all adequate credit for their work–which, in its way, is an excellent problem to have.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, investigations into trafficking “increased by more than 400 percent in the first six months of fiscal year 2005, compared to the total number of cases in fiscal year 2004.” Although keeping true numbers on these elusive crimes is next to impossible, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are being traded within the United States. Internationally, the estimate is between 600,000 and 800,000, mostly women and children. But nations plagued with sex trafficking, who’ve enabled sex trafficking, are changing in part because, according to Congressman Chris Smith (R., N.J.), “they know we mean business.”

On January 10, President Bush signed the bipartisan 2005 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, providing $361 million over the next two years to combat trafficking domestically. At the signing ceremony, the president noted, “Over the past four years, the Department of Homeland Security has taken new measures to protect children from sexual predators, as well as pornography and prostitution rings. The Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with faith-based and community organizations to form anti-trafficking coalitions in 17 major cities across our country.”

The bill renewed 2000 legislation that made human trafficking a federal crime. It was authored by Congressman Smith, who was already a veteran of the fight, having participated in the rescue of Ukrainian girls in bondage in Montenegro–long before trafficking was on most people’s radars. Closer to home, he sees the fruits of his labor: In Smith’s own New Jersey this November, one Xochil Nectalina Rosales Martinez, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from her role in running a trafficking ring that smuggled Honduran women–some younger than 21–into the United States to be forced to work at Union City bars.

Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island, has been an activist on the issue for some 17 years. She describes the sea change over the last decade: For a while there, during the Clinton administration, she says, her fellow feminists were more interested in “sex worker’s rights” than victims’ suffering, and won government support for their approach. And there was little prominent outrage. Hughes remembers, “During the late 1990s, all the media stories were about how empowering prostitution was, how much money the women made, how pimps were disappearing and the women were independent businesswomen, how women in India were forming unions and collectives to fight for their rights as sex workers, etc.” But, now, she notes, “the media stories more often tell horror stories of how women and girls are beaten, raped and enslaved. On the surface that may sound more depressing, but to me it is much better because it’s the truth.” The awareness–in Washington and in the press–has meant, she says, that “the truth about prostitution/sex trafficking is emerging and agencies are responding in a way that never have previously. “

Of course, we have only begun to fight. The State Department’s 2005 status report–which works on an effective tier system and promises sanctions against countries who don’t fix their problem (ten of the worst-off countries immediately jumped to action), notes “the involvement of police and immigration officials in trafficking seriously hobbled efforts to free victims of their misery and prosecute those responsible for modern-day slavery. Too many law enforcement operations were unsuccessful as brothel-keepers, sweatshop owners, or traffickers were tipped off by corrupt officials.” Human trafficking is an evil web that ensnares too many, with too many enablers.

But abroad and at home, folks are at work, educating, investigating, enforcing, and healing. This is a fight the United States is in to win because it is quintessentially what we’re about as a nation. As one slave in North Korea wrote to a rescuer-pastor in South Korea: “I want to live like a human being for one day. I am a human being. How can I be sold like this? I need freedom.”

(c) 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.


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