Friday, March 26, 2010

Why We Need the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act

It is still a shock for many, that in a technologically advanced and a small world like ours, where we are separated from one another by only six degrees, slavery still exists. Some say it is not possible for such a hideous phenomenon to exist and even if it does exist, it is not possible for it to exist around us. We would've known about it, they say.

But the reality is that it does exist; it is all around us and it is part of our lives. It many not be just around us, but it may be in our homes and part of our lives - from the shoes we buy to tomatoes we eat. It is very possible that its existence plays a critical role in how we dress, what we eat, and how we live our lives. Problem - Global and Local International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that around 12.3 million adults and children are being trafficked at any given time. The majority of these people are women and girls forced into sexual servitude. One thing which is common across cases is that the society does not treat them as victims and in fact penalizes them.


  • When Maria was five, her father’s common-law wife started selling her for prostitution in Nicaragua. After a few years, NGO workers found Maria living in the city dump and took her to a home for little girls. She behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner with the other girls, as that was the only life she had ever known. She was asked to leave that children’s home. Maria was taken to another children’s home for her protection while investigators documented her abuse and worked to terminate her father’s parental rights.
  • When Julia was 8, a man took her and her sisters to a neighboring country and forced them to beg on the streets until their early teens, when he sold them into prostitution. Julia’s traffickers expected her to bring in a certain amount of money each day or face beatings. At 14, Julia ran away, eventually coming under the supervision of local authorities. They placed her in an orphanage where she was not allowed to go to school due to her undocumented status. After a few months, Julia ran away from the orphanage and became involved with a pimp who prostituted her to local men and tourists. Recently, Julia was arrested on narcotics charges. She will likely spend the next two years in a juvenile prison, where she will finally learn to read and write.
  • Many victims don’t know where to go for help when they escape from their traffickers or after they return home. A male victim of forced labor explains: “I knew nothing about the assistance available for trafficking victims. I didn’t know who to address in the destination country in case I needed help. I thought I could go only to the police. There I didn’t have enough courage to go to the police because the [traffickers] used to say that they bought the police. They threatened me with death in case I went to the police. I was afraid.”
  • Prostitutes are arrested more often than their pimps and customers and can face police brutality. This is particularly true for the prostitutes operating at the lowest level of the prostitution subculture—including those on the street and drug-addicted prostitutes. According to senior retired police officer Joe Haggarty, in order for a case to be prosecuted against a pimp, at least one of the pimp’s girls must testify, but many refuse. Despite their abuse, pimps provide a roof over the heads of their prostitutes, and the girls are often very loyal to their pimps. New York Police Detectives added that it is very difficult to have the chance to talk to prostituted girls because any statements made against the pimp could also incriminate the girls.
It is clear that most sexually exploited victims do not feel there is any way out. They feel like criminals! According to several sources and agencies, New York City is one of final destinations of human trafficking activities. National Institute of Justice estimates approximately 4,000 child sex trafficking victims in NYC. Some claim this is a conservative estimate!

U.S. Department of Justice released a report in January 2009, which said a) about 80% of the reported trafficking incidents involved sex trafficking, b) about 90% of the victims were female, c) about 30% of the sex trafficking incidents involved children, and d) about 60% of the sex trafficking victims were US citizens. The picture for victims of sex trafficking is worse: the world often fails to see them as victims. They are not treated like the victims of violence and human rights abuses that they are. We need better laws and better services for the victims.

This is what
New York Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act is trying to do. The Act, which comes into effect in April 2010, is the nation's first such act which recognizes sexually exploited children as victims and offers them social services instead of punishing them. Both the Trafficking in Persons Report and the UN meeting with survivors of human trafficking have pointed out that the victims need a safe place to speak out and we need to help them break out of the cycle of fear.

In the next post, I will write about what we can look forward to regarding the impact of this act. I hope to interview NGOs and researchers to find out how they feel this act can help and if they feel it is sufficient do what we hope to do, which is to stop this abuse!

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