Let’s Get Intersectional
Do you ever feel alone in your commitment to social justice and ending child exploitation? Here at The SOLD Project we want to talk about how ending child slavery is not just for freedom activists, but how it’s also an issue that should interest and invite involvement from a wide range of other sectors in society. We’re introducing a new recurring feature called Let’s Get Intersectional, in which we will share how anti-trafficking efforts intersect with other concerns, and how we can expand the conversation to include others. In this article, we want to begin with reframing it not just as an issue of morality, but one also of public health.
We’ve all seen the numbers: an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year, according to the International Labor Organization. Yet, despite the size of the phenomenon and increasing government attention to the problem, conviction rates of traffickers remain abysmally low, with only 4 in 10 countries reporting more than 10 convictions per year, and nearly 15% having no convictions at all. Clearly, law enforcement is an essential element to eradicating trafficking, but it is also not nearly sufficient. As was well stated in an article by Jonathan Todres, the low conviction rate is not so much an indictment of law enforcement efforts, as it is evidence that a “law-enforcement-centered approach alone will not eliminate, or even significantly reduce, the incidence of human trafficking.”
It’s long past time we begin think about trafficking as more than just a crime. Todres’ article lays out several reasons we should adopt models and methods from public health campaigns to broaden our efforts to eliminate trafficking by changing the views and behaviors that facilitate exploitation. Much like a vaccine prevents the spread of infection both on the individual and on the societal levels, so too should anti-trafficking efforts aim to prevent the spread of exploitation before it happens.
One reason we should be concerned about trafficking from a public health perspective is the negative health repercussions. I probably don’t need to tell you about the physical and psychological impact exploitation, sexual slavery, and abuse has on its victims. I’m sure you can well imagine it, and it is well documented. However, because trafficking is a phenomenon that happens out of sight and across borders, it facilitates the spread of HIV/AIDS, and various other STDs and STIs (like hepatitis B) that come from unsafe sex. The squalid conditions, lack of nutrition, and lack of adequate rest that victims suffer from also create environments that facilitate the spread of diseases like tuberculosis in the communities in which victims live and work.
Public health professionals come from a perspective of prevention and their insistence on scientific, evidence-based methods can be another benefit to anti-trafficking efforts. For example, public health surveillance programs that track instances of infection can help identify areas of high rates so that law enforcement officials can target their resources in those areas.
The American Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a 4-level model for prevention: individual, relationship, community, and society. Todres suggests the individual level approach could focus on educating children on how to identify risky situations and how to avoid them. The relationship level would focus on mentoring kids to keep them in school. The community level should involve efforts to raise awareness about trafficking, and to counter views, behaviors, and practices that promote trafficking. Finally, the society level should address root systemic causes like poverty, the lack of rights, discrimination, and lack of documentation. Is this model sounding familiar?
This approach also advocates reaching out to other sectors of society, turning industries that typically facilitate trafficking and exploitation into allies and advocates of its prevention. For example, truckers driving along major trucking routes may sometimes be involved in trafficking, or they may witness trafficking as it happens. Those educated in identifying potential trafficking situations may be well placed to help. In the U.S., there is an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking that aims to educate truckers about these situations, and recently a trucker saved a young girl from the sex trade and torture in just this way.
Public health campaigns to raise awareness can be effective in creating changes in behavior and encouraging more thoughtful choices, as in warning labels on cigarettes or nutrition labels on our food. What could the effect be if we had labels on brothels that said, “Warning: may contribute to the exploitation of children” or “Warning: this establishment is a known contributor to the abuse of children” on hotels that have been identified as safe harbors for traffickers? Or a “Certified Slave Free” label on establishments that demonstrate a commitment to ending servitude and disallowing abuse. There are thorny legal issues that would make something like this a bit problematic to legislate carefully and well…but it’s an interesting thought that could help broaden our perspective of what’s possible.
Finally, health care professionals themselves are very well-placed to help identify victims in ways that other outsiders may not be able to. Estimates range from about a quarter to half of trafficking victims in the U.S. and abroad encounter a doctor or a nurse at some point during their captivity. Doctors and nurses who are trained to identify potential abuse situations may be the only person a victim sees outside their captivity, and doctors can insist on privacy in the examination room where they can ask questions about the victim’s situation and then alert authorities. The Medical College in Wisconsin is starting a project to help educate health care professionals on signs to watch for and how to proceed in those circumstances. They can be key allies in helping rescue a victim, and getting them out of the situation sooner.
Trafficking and exploitation pervades society. It touches more lives than we realize. It’s time we call out to people who may be affected and reach out to advocates and allies who might never have known before that they can help. It’s time we tap into their potential.
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