Human trafficking exists in almost every region around the globe - children, young women, even men - entrapped and forced into prostitution, involuntary labor and other forms of servitude, unable to escape. The best estimates indicate that 100,000 children and adults are trafficked within the U.S. every year. A variety of activists have mobilized to fight it.
Eight years ago, Shamere McKenzie was an ambitious 21-year-old college student in New York. The last thing she expected was to become trapped in the commercial sex industry.
“It happened by meeting a man who I believed had an interest in dating me at first. I would never think he was a pimp because he was very smooth, very charming," said McKenzie. "We had great conversations about politics, single parents in the community, the high number of African American males incarcerated. So with those types of conversations, I didn’t think that this guy was, in fact, a pimp. I was in jeopardy of losing my scholarship. I needed $3,000 to go back to school, and he said, ‘don’t worry I’ll help you get back to school.'”
But instead of helping her, he kidnapped her and forced her into prostitution.
“I think a true word that will really define what it’s like to be enslaved is torture. And that is torture in every sense of the word that you can just imagine of what torture is," she said. "A lot of times the public think it’s these beatings or rapes, but it’s more than that. For some survivors it’s getting burns with cigarette butts. For some survivors it’s being slashed in the head with a box cutter.”
McKenzie was enslaved for 18 months during which she tried every possible way to escape.
“But all my ways proved futile. I didn’t have the courage to kill him. I tried running away a couple of times, but that didn’t work. I thought about poisoning his food and things of that nature to get out," said McKenzie. "But from the very first time, I told my trafficker I wanted to leave. And he told me, 'if you leave me I will kill you or your family.'”
It wasn’t until the police busted her trafficker - and her - that she was freed.
McKenzie is now working with Shared Hope International, an organization that fights to prevent sex trafficking and rescue those in caught in its web.
Spokeswoman Taryn Offenbacher said they have a comprehensive strategy to achieve their mission. “Our prevention efforts are all based on training and awareness. [In] our restoration efforts, we have 12 partners in five countries and we support long-term restoration, shelter and services, medical treatment, food and shelter, clothing, educational opportunities and training. The justice component [is] being able to properly prosecute the crime.”
While trafficking takes different forms around the world, Offenbacher said the driving force behind it remains the same: demand.
“We know that without demand there will be no trafficker, there will no victim," said Offenbacher. "If states can prioritize demand deterrence, putting laws on the books that would deter buyers and provide meaningful, significant sentences and punishments that would deter them from the crime, and if it’s recognized as a crime, we believe we would see less buyers out there buying, and less victims out there being exploited.”
That is the message Shamere McKenzie presents as a voice for sex trafficking victims.
“I speak to several audiences. I speak to colleges, to churches, I speak with policy makers. When I’m speaking to young men, I stress upon the fact that it’s not cool to be a pimp. I explain to them what the true definition of a pimp is. And for several of these young men, when they hear that they’re like, ‘wow, these pimps are really bad.’ And for young ladies, I explain to them how easy it is for them to be captured by a pimp.”
Now almost 30, McKenzie is getting ready to go back to college and study law. She hopes to prosecute traffickers, helping to end the scourge of human trafficking.