Survivors Are Victims

Human trafficking survivors are just that–survivors. They were, and still are, victims. They should be treated as such. Rather, a lot of times, our justice system treats them as criminals. They are thrown in jail for their roles as “prostitutes” even though it wasn’t a life they chose for themselves.

Even children are treated this way. They are called “child prostitutes” and judged for selling their bodies at pre-pubecent ages. There is no such thing as a child prostitute.

Rather than treating these victims as criminals, we need to treat them as the survivors that they are. How? Here are some tips for treating human trafficking survivors.

  • Provide support and encourage self-sufficiency for survivors. Many survivors don’t have training to hold a job. Giving them access to vocational training and other longterm support is vital to their future success.
  • Focus on the individual and use a trauma-informed approach. It’s important to remember the trauma they’ve experienced in order to avoid re-traumatization.
  • Utilize their experience. Survivors are the only ones with true firsthand experience. They are experts on the topic of human trafficking and their knowledge should be put to use to help others. Survivors also deserve to be compensated for this expertise and their confidentiality should be respected.
  • Don’t force them to do anything. Self-sufficiency should be encouraged and forcing a survivor to participate in activities or programs takes that freedom away.

You can read more tips on treatment of survivors here.

Recovering from ISIS Captivity

Coping with the effects of sexual assault and rape is overwhelming. It is a complex form of trauma that breaches the physical, mental, and spiritual trust of a person against their will. Due to high levels of stress caused by abuse, a person can experience chronic fatigue and many other symptoms.

Two weeks after her rescue, Souhayla, a Yazidi native of Iraq, was still experiencing many of these symptoms. She could not sit up. Her physical injuries were significant, but fortunately, not life-threatening. The sixteen year old’s near unconsciousness was the result of severe shock after three years of serial rape as a captive of ISIS.

Souhayla’s village was raided by ISIS in 2014. Citing a defunct statute of Islamic law, ISIS deemed the Yazidi ethnic minority eligible for enslavement. Soulhayla was held as a prisoner is Mosul, Iraq where she was raped time and time again by multiple men. She was later moved to an area of Mosul that was riddled with armed conflict. It was here that her captor was killed in an airstrike, destroying much of his house. She found the strength to climb through the debris to an Iraqi checkpoint. She was later reunited with her family.

Now back home, Souhayla is slowly recovering, as is common for women who have suffered this type of abuse. Almost 90% of these women slip into a coma-like shock after their rescue as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma they have endured. At first, many show an alarming amount of indoctrinate, unable to abandon their ISIS ideals.

3,410 Yazidi people remain captive or unaccounted for as the conflict in the Middle East continues. Souhayla and her family hope that their story will raise awareness of this abomination of human rights and bring rescue and healing to girls like her.

You can read more of Souhayla’s story here.

Girls Suffer in Guatemala from Lack of Education

Imagine being pregnant and not knowing how it happened. Not knowing what you did to make a baby.

This may sound crazy…everyone knows where babies come from. But this isn’t the case in Guatemala. Angela, a Guatemalan teenager, had her first child at the age of 14 before she knew anything about it.

“I [knew] they would come from your belly, but I didn’t know how you could make them,” she says after finding herself pregnant with her teacher’s child.

This isn’t uncommon in her country. In fact, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy due to lack of sex education. Many new mothers don’t even know the correct terms for their own body parts.

In 2014, there were more than 5,000 pregnancies in girls under the age of 14 in the country. This number is assisted by the high rates of sexual violence against young girls. Many of the previously mentioned 5,000 pregnancies were from a close family member.

By 19, most Guatemalan women have two children. They’ve dropped out of school to care for them and struggle to make ends meet. Many times, the women are forced to marry the father of their children, despite domestic abuse in the relationship. All of these factors reinforce the cycle of poverty and violence throughout the country.

You can read more about how the Guatemalan government is working to improve conditions for women and young girls here.

War Child

Ishmael was just 12 years old when the Sierra Leone armed conflict was in full swing. He recalls a simple and happy childhood, one filled with family and normalcy.

One day, he took a trip with friends to participate in a talent show a couple of miles down the road from their town. While gone, their town was attacked. Upon returning home, the boys were faced with an amount of devastation no child should experience.

“We saw men carrying their dead children in their arms. I saw a man cry for the first time in my life…We decided that we can’t go back home anymore and decided to wait. Hopefully to see our families come through, but they didn’t come.”

Ishmael and his friends spent the next year traveling from village to village looking for food, water, and shelter. Ishmael eventually learned of his family’s whereabouts and went to meet them. Upon his arrival at the village, he saw the town aflame, his family gone. Ishmael now knew his family was gone for good and lost all hope.

The boys found a nearby village run by government soldiers. They received food, water, shelter, and were able to return to a normal life…for a while. Eventually, they were told that, in order to stay at the village, they must fight. When some tried to leave, they were killed.

So Ishmael fought.

“First, you know, you get your own weapon and everything and the magazines and the bullets, and then you give you drugs. I was descending into their hell so quickly, and I just started shooting and that’s what I did for over two years basically. Whoever the commander said, ‘This guy is the enemy,’ there were no questions asked. There was no second guessing because when you asked a question and you say, ‘Why?’ they’ll shoot you right away.” Ishmael had been turned into a killer by taking away everything he knew.

Two years after being forced into fighting, Ishmael was saved by workers at the United Nations. Now, he advocates for children affected by war. You can read his full story here.

Senators Against Backpage

“Four months ago, a 15-year-old girl walked into Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri and asked for help. Along with four other girls between the ages of 12 and 18, she had been sold for sex at truck stops across Missouri, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico for almost two months. She was lucky to be alive. According to her police report, another girl traveling with her during those months had died in her arms. The 15-year-old girl who walked into Cardinal Glennon, like the majority of children who are sold of sex in the United States today, was trafficked using Backpage.”

Missouri Senator, Claire McCaskill, shared this story in a hearing room in November 2016. Along with Ohio Senator Rob Portman, she launched an investigation into online sex trafficking just months earlier. Quickly, their investigation led to, the site that has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of child sex trafficking.

During the same hearing, Senator McCaskill stated that Backpage CEO, Carl Ferrer, and other executives were aware of the ads selling children for sex on their website. However, they told moderators that these ads are not to be taken down. The guidelines emphasize “IF IN DOUBT ABOUT UNDERAGE, THE PROCESS FOR NOW SHOULD BE TO ACCEPT THE AD.” Despite many meetings and requests from 2010 – 2013 with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Backpage executives never changed their policies regarding these ads. Ferrer refused to appear at the hearing.

The Senate voted unanimously to hold Backpage in contempt and in January, Ferrer was arrested on charges of sex trafficking and pimping.

Click here to read the full story and see the Senator’s findings from their investigation into and Carl Ferrer.

Ashton Kutcher Talks Human Trafficking with the Senate

This looks like a dream!
Recently, Ashton Kutcher spoke in front of the Senate regarding the anti-human trafficking organization, Thorn, of which he is co-founder. “I’m here today to defend the right to pursue happiness…It’s bestowed upon all of us by our Constitution…But the right to pursue happiness for so many is taken away and sold for the momentary happiness of another.”

He gave senators several ideas to end the trade in humans, including adaptable technology and steps to protect vulnerable refugees. With tears in his eyes, Kutcher pressed the importance of using good technology to battle technology that facilitates human trafficking. He recommended addressing the “pipelines” to trafficking–taking a deeper look at the foster care system, which he says is a “breeding ground” for abuse, and providing better assistance for vulnerable refugees.

Kutcher also told stories of victims he has had direct contact with. He told the Senate about the time the Department of Homeland Security called Thorn as their last hope in saving a seven-year-old girl who had been raped to make child pornography for three years. “We were the last line of defense. An actor and his foundation were the potential last line of defense.”

You can view the full video of Kutcher’s presentation here.

Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita

Tomorrow, we celebrate the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita. She was born in Darfur, Sudan in 1869 and ripped away from her loving family between the age of 7 and 9. She was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and given the name “Bakhita.” After being sold several times and enduring such brutal treatment that she couldn’t even remember her own name, she ended up in Venice, taking care of an Italian family’s child. When the family left for business in Africa, they left Bakhita and the child with the Canossian Sisters of Charity. Bakhita would later say that the moment she walked through the Sisters’ doors, she felt as though she had returned home.

When the Italian family returned for Bakhita and their daughter, Bakhita refused to go with them. Despite the family’s protestations, it was determined that Bakhita was a free woman according to Italian law. They could not force her to accompany them. She was baptized Josephine in 1890 and became a Canossian Sister in 1896. After 50 years of ministry, she died on February 8, 1947 at a Canossian convent, surrounded by her sisters.

In 2000, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II who declared: “The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance, but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.” Her feast day is recognized as a day of prayer for an end to human trafficking around the world.

In honor of St. Josephine Bakhita, I invite you to pray with us today:

O God, you always hear the cry of your people
and have compassion for the oppressed and the enslaved.
May they experience the liberation of the cross
and the resurrection of Jesus.
We pray to You for those suffering
the torment of human trafficking.
Transform us by the power of Your Spirit,
to be sensitive to the pain of these, our sisters and brothers.
Committed to overcoming this evil,
give us the courage to stand up and work for the rights
of our sisters and brothers
who live in slavery and exploitation.
We ask this with the intercession of St. Josephine
in Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Prayer by Peter McKenna, SCJ]