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Trafficking of Women - 2003-03-13

Many people assume that slavery is a long abandoned practice. But while it is against the law in most countries, forced labor still exists in many forms today.

A majority of the victims are poor: young women, children, families. There are sweat shops where men and women make clothing, trapped in unbearable working conditions, children and even the elderly forced to break rocks in quarries and young girls kidnapped and used for sex.

This week the U.S. State Department hosted an international conference here in Washington, D.C. on one of the most pervasive kinds of slavery, the trafficking of young girls and women for sex. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the delegates that 76 sex traffickers have been prosecuted here in the United States in the last two years. Representatives from 120 countries shared ideas on how to combat sex trafficking, which experts say is a multi-billion dollar industry second only to drugs and arms in profits for those in organized crime.

Young women and children are lured every day by false promises and dreams of a better life. But those dreams turn out to be nightmares when they discover there is no escape.

Young women and children are lured every day by false promises and dreams of a better life. But those dreams turn out to be nightmares when they discover there is “no escape.”

“It’s the foreigners I hate most. They knew how young I was. When I was 11, I had to sleep with three.”

“My friends and I were taken by the same man. He told us we were going to work as prostitutes in Italy. I was really scared.”

“There was a guard watching over me the whole time. He never let me go outside, not even to eat. The guard brought all my food into the room.”

These young women are survivors, free to tell their stories. But they have paid a high price. Childhoods have been destroyed and as former prostitutes, some are outcasts in their own society.

Sex trafficking is a growing problem all over the world. John Miller, the Director of the U.S. State Department's office to monitor and combat trafficking, cites United Nations figures that 700-thousand to one million children a year are kidnapped and sold into the sex trade.

“I mean, these are huge numbers and you think of the suffering, you think of how people, what they endure. Some of them die from AIDS, they’re just put out on the street. After, they’re not quote: worth anything to their owners.”

In southern China Yu Kang’s eldest daughter disappeared from the family home near the border with Burma.

“She was leading the cows out to the fields. That’s when those men took her away.”

Her daughter, Yingxiang, was 19-years-old when she disappeared. After two years of silence, she wrote a letter to her sister describing a nightmarish journey to Burma at gunpoint. She and ten other Chinese girls had fallen victim to a sex trafficking network:

“She ran away once, but they caught her and beat her up. My sister was very strong, but they beat her badly.”

Yingxiang wound up in a brothel in Malaysia, forced to provide sex without pay.

Later the family received news that she had died of AIDS.

The psychological damage to these young prostitutes is evident in undercover video: girls from Albania lured by the promise of marriage or a job in Italy, young women forced to work the streets in Canada and the United States after being told they had to pay back the price of illegal passage.

Again, the U.S. State Department’s John Miller:

“Sometimes it’s under false pretenses. You know, recruiting agencies offering jobs where you can make money. Sure, go to Western Europe, go to the United States, be a model, work in restaurants. All this stuff, it’s very tempting.”

The problem also exists in Asia. This video shows young children, 10 and 11-years-old, offering themselves to potential customers in Cambodia.

“The children are trafficked from Vietnam into Pnomh Penh, that’s where they’re victimized in the brothels in Pnomh and outside that area.”

Gary Haugen is president of the International Justice Mission. His organization works with human rights activists in Cambodia and around the world to rescue victims of forced labor and sex trafficking. He is critical of what he calls the failure of Cambodian police to stop child trafficking.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that in Cambodia one can say that the local police there are protecting the brothel and sex trafficking operations. They’re not protecting the children and the reason they’re doing that is that they’re paid off to do that.”

Yungyaung (voon yung) Tan, the political counselor of the Royal Cambodian Embassy in Washington, D.C., responds to the criticism:

“The best is to stop it but they cannot just stop it for a day or two days. You have to seek ways [on] how to deal with them.”

A U.S. law, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, sets minimum standards in fighting sex trafficking for those countries seeking American foreign aid and support. The U.S. State Department has included Cambodia among a list of countries failing to meet those standards.

Yungyaung Tan of the Royal Cambodian Embassy says the government’s National Assembly already passed a law to crack down on the sex trafficking but more, he admits, needs to be done.”

“We need more assistance from foreign countries, the government, financial [institutions] to put an end.”

Internet web sites advertise sex tours to Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, Attracting customers to the brothels.

Gary Haugen says the brothels will continue to thrive, unless those customers are given a reason to stay away.

“You can have conferences, you can have awareness campaigns, you might even shut down a brothel for a little while but the real question is two things: (1) Have you sent anybody to jail for committing these crimes? Not have you run any raids have you made a lot of noise. (2) But how many people have you actually sent to jail and convicted of these offenses?”

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, at present, 89 countries are judged on their efforts to fight sex trafficking. A new list of countries will be released by the U.S. State Department in June.