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Posts from the ‘Human Trafficking’ Category

The problem with numbers

The problem with numbers is that I’m not very good at them. Seriously, math has never been my favorite subject. My calculus teacher in high school had to practically bribe me to study and do well in class. Thankfully, that phase of my life has ended, but I’ve been reading an awful lot of numbers recently. Trafficking organizations are all about the numbers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12, or 13, or 14. I’ve read more than once that 100,000 individuals are trafficked in the United States each year. Some say as many as 300,000. Worldwide, I’ve heard that 27 million individuals are trafficked annually, while others say only 20 million, or 12 million are trafficked. What’s with all the disparity in numbers? Researchers about human trafficking have suggested that there are “no reliable estimates of the extent of the problem.”(1) Others have stated, “Much of the research produced fails to live up to academic standards common in other fields of research.”(2) There are several explanations for the varying information and misinformation that has been published.

First (and most obviously), human trafficking occurs illegally and in secret. Information is difficult to gather when traffickers to their best to avoid getting caught.(2) Yet we still continue to throw around vastly varying numbers as if they were true.

Secondly (and most importantly), the movement to create legislation to help combat human trafficking has largely been driven by activists and NGOs.(1) These organizations have done an excellent job of drawing the attention of the public. Law makers have taken notice and have written new legislation in response. These legislators need statistics in order to allocate funding for new programs and procedures, and pressure has fallen on researchers who can hardly keep up with the demand.(1) Responsibly gathering accurate information can take years of research. Under pressure to produce information, many researchers have reverted to broad estimations.(1)

It seems like an easy thing to blow off. Even I have thought, Oh well, at least victims will still receive attention they need, even if we’ve exaggerated a bit. However, as one researcher has said, “[we] fail to recognize that an inaccurate estimate of the problem is likely to result in a remedy that is equally inappropriate.”(1) Lawmakers can only respond to the information they receive; we can’t properly connect with victims unless we appropriately pinpoint victims and assess their needs.

Furthermore, exaggeration leads to donor fatigue. The individuals and organizations that provide funding for anti-trafficking groups are less inclined to continue funding projects if they see the project as unsuccessful or insurmountable. When we report millions and millions of enslaved victims, we risk a frustrated public. I’ve been researching trafficking for only a year and I have frequently felt frustrated. If the problem is so big, what are we supposed to do about it? That’s not a very good attitude. You’re doing donors a favor when you’re realistic and practical. Organizations dedicated to anti-trafficking efforts should be responsible about the information they disseminate to the public. It’s about time we all did our homework. Even a seemingly reliable government report can contain questionable information. It’s time to stop relying on numbers we can’t really trust and start speaking honestly about the issues. We know trafficking is out there. We’ve met, and seen, and heard the voices of men, women, and children worldwide. It’s okay to be honest; it’s okay to admit we don’t actually know how bad the problem may be. Organizations should focus on creating viable solutions for the victims to which they have access. When outsiders can see a program working successfully, we don’t have to use scare tactics or huge statistics to motivate patrons. I never liked numbers anyway.

Tyldum, Guri. “Limitations In Research On Human Trafficking.” International Migration 48.5 (2010): 1-13. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
Kotrla, Kimberly. “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking In The United States.” Social Work 55.2 (2010): 181-187. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.


An evening with Somaly Mam

Somaly Mam at the Santuary on Penn in Indianapolis

The college life is one of lectures. From the first hour of Welcome Week, to the last speech at graduation, everyone is talking. Every once in a while, you hear a lecture that matters. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to listen to one of those lectures when anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam came to Indianapolis to talk about her anti-trafficking efforts in Cambodia. She left me pondering at night for several weeks.

Somaly Mam is a Cambodian trafficking survivor, human rights activist, and author. She was born into a marginalized ethnic group in Cambodia, and later trafficked by a man who pretended to be her grandfather. The man sold her to a brothel where she was raped and abused for many years before she worked up the courage to escape. She soon returned to Cambodia, where she started an organization dedicated to saving victims and empowering survivors of trafficking. To date, Somaly’s organization has helped an estimated 7,000 victims.

When she stood up to talk, I hadn’t yet read anything about her life. I was hoping to get the full dramatic story of her experiences, but the first thing she said was something like,

“I am Somaly. I was trafficked. It is very sad, but I’m not here to talk about that. We’re not here for crying; we are here to talk about solutions.”

At first, I was thrown off by the way she breezed over her own life. Then I realized she had said something very important. I wanted to stand up and applaud her. Here at last was a woman with whom I could relate! Even more exciting, she was credible, thanks to her years of personal and professional experience. It was simple. It was beautiful. I could have danced. (I never dance. Ask my boyfriend.) The root of what she was saying came down to this: solutions.

Human trafficking is one of those social justice issues that will convince you in five minutes you’re a die-hard activist. When a little girl with big brown eyes tells you about being raped by her own family, you’ll do anything to be her advocate. Trust me. There are so many tragedies, and all the stories deserve a voice. (I do believe that, or I wouldn’t be doing this project.) But in Somaly’s words, the stories are about recognizing tragedy and creating solutions for it. She asked us to get down and dirty, to the very core of the issue. How can we rescue more girls from trafficking situations? How can we educate them and give them a chance to live another life? How can we fill them with the food every soul longs for (the Gospel)? How can we teach our men that objectifying women contributes to the problem? How can we explain that pornography goes beyond innocent “me time,” because it destroys young girls’ lives? The list goes on.

There are individuals who dedicate their lives to rescuing the broken lives of trafficked individuals. They are daily creating solutions and actively answering the questions above. Somaly is one individual who spends the majority of her time working with girls in the brothels of Cambodia. Little people like me are here to honor their lives and contribute to their life work. These stories and the artwork are here to educate and raise money that will go back to an organization that does work like Somaly’s in the United States. The money is for solutions: a home for the homeless girls, an education for their new lives, life counsel for their broken hearts, and outreach for those still lost. Maybe you will join me, when the time is right.



*Information about Somaly Mam was taken from the biography on Somaly Mam’s website,

Domestic minor sex trafficking basics

If you’ve been reading and following this blog (or paying attention to the news) you will know that human trafficking takes many different forms. (If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, I suggest going back to this post for a preface). I thought I’d go into a little more detail about one particular case of human trafficking: domestic minor sex trafficking, since that is primarily the kind dealt with by The Hope House. To break it down, domestic minor sex trafficking is

  • domestic- occurring within the borders of the United States. This may involve foreign victims, though the majority are American girls.
  • minor- victims under the age of 18
  • sex- victims are used for commercial sex- porn, stripping, and prostitution… you get the idea.
  • trafficking- one person holds or obtains another person for compelled service (2011 TIP Report)

So, to be as clear as possible, what I am saying to you is this: there are teenage American kids, mostly girls, who are being forced and manipulated by adults, mostly men, to have sex a dozen times a day… all the time.
(To read a summary of domestic sex trafficking, check out this fact sheet by the Polaris Project)

That’s pretty freaky stuff. Especially when you learn it’s not unusual.  Of course, you find cases of trafficking in big cities like Los Angeles and New York. But I called a detective from my hometown- Fort Wayne, IN- who told me of cases that had occurred in Fort Wayne, too. When I told people I was headed to Western North Carolina for the summer to work with victims of human trafficking, they were confused. (North Carolina? There can’t be victims of weird crimes like that in North Carolina.) Turns out, some of the girls aren’t from too far away- there have been cases in NC. Domestic minor sex trafficking isn’t unusual because of one simple fact: the demand for commercial sex is everywhere. Where there’s a market, someone is likely to set up shop. Researchers and government officials in the field most commonly estimate there are between 100,000 and 300,000 victims of sex trafficking in the United States today. That’s a lot of kids, and they’re scattered all over the country.

So how does it happen? At first I had this picture in my head of cute teenage girls who were swept out of their beds in the middle of the night and kidnapped into a brothel where they longed for freedom and escape. There ARE some cases like that, but actually, pimps are a lot smarter than that.

Normally, what happens is they find a vulnerable young girl. (The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-13.) She’s maybe a little insecure, not the prettiest girl in her class but not the ugliest either. A lot of the time, she’s running from something: home, abusive parents, a history of sexual abuse, a missing father, a drug addicted mother, domestic abuse, an angry household- you name it. That’s when Mr. Pimp sweeps in and starts to lay on the charm. He’s an older guy- maybe in his 30s or 40s and he tells her how beautiful she is. A young girl who’s never had a daddy starts to think maybe this could be salvation- prince charming in the form of a father she never had! He’ll buy her gifts, special dinners, cute clothing, manicures and pedicures. She thinks, wow! I’ve never been treated so well in my life. He promises to take care of her. He’ll be anything she needs him to be. And she swoons.

That’s when Mr. Pimp will lay the trap. He already has her heart in his hand, so he will smoothly say, “Baby, I love you. But we need some money. If you could earn us some money, we could save up and do so many awesome things together! All I need you to do is have a ‘date’ with my friend.” She’s trapped. She thinks she loves him. She thinks she’s making a sacrifice for him (and if she doesn’t, that’s when the physical abuse starts.) After that, it’s a game of manipulation for the pimp. He sweetens her up with love, gifts, promises. When that doesn’t work, he beats her up with his body, a belt, or his words. And if all else fails, he’ll scare her with threats against her family, siblings, friends, or pets. There’s no escape.

And the odd thing is, a lot of girls don’t want escape. They’re so torn by their “love” for this man. And for once in their lives, they believe they are actually needed and useful.  Many girls experience trauma bonding, where they become attached to the one who is causing most of their pain. Needless to say, pimps are incredibly good at manipulation. So what happens to the girl?

Well, she’s probably not a sweet, cute girl anymore. You can’t be raped and beaten on a daily basis and still be innocent and sweet. Domestic minor sex trafficking victims have seen the ugliest situations you could imagine. And she’s probably not honest anymore, either. She’s had to lie to herself, her pimp, her johns, her fellow prostitutes just to survive. She can’t really trust anyone, and she probably won’t trust you either. She’ll do stupid things, like run away when help is offered, because the last time she was offered help, it was by a pimp who promised salvation and gave her hell.

So why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know the truth. Guess what? Not every trafficking victim wants to be saved. Sometimes they’re ugly, mean, nasty girls with a strong attitude. But can you blame them? They still deserve your persistent love and effort on their behalf.

If you think about it, we’re really just the same.  We grow up, and we’re a little broken because the world is a broken place, so we look for salvation. Maybe we find it in sports, or beauty, or money, or music. Whatever it is, we worship it wholeheartedly. And then it lets us down. We end up with an injury, never able to compete again (story of my life.) We find out that money is empty and we end up its slave. We find the “perfect” mate only to end up angry and wounded. Life’s a real letdown sometimes. And then God shows up. He says, “Hey, I love you. I’ll take care of you. I’ll never abandon you.” And we don’t really believe him, because isn’t that what the last guy said? Isn’t that what our hobbies, our friends, and activities had promised us? We kind of smile and pretend like we love him but we find ourselves running away to other things. We’re stubborn, and mean, and we don’t trust… just like ex-prostitutes. But God’s love is persistent! It is big, full, and true. We run away, and he pulls us back to himself over, and over, and over again. He rescues me from the mess I’m making every day of my life. We are just like the faithless bride in Ezekiel 16 in the Bible. God loves her, grows her up, provides for her… and yet she runs away time and time again. So he rescues her time and time again. He is rightfully angry with her unfaithfulness, but he never turns his back on his promises to her. Talk about commitment. But that is what our weak hearts need, and that is what the hearts of these girls need, too. An angry victim is still a victim in need. Again, I can tell you the only way I know how to love is because of God’s perfect love for me. I plan to spread it around and give it away (imperfectly, but as best as I can) because I needed to be rescued just as much as they do.

A history of recent events and a word about shame.

Well, well. It’s been a few days! I haven’t had a lot of moments to myself. For the most part, life has settled into a pattern here in North Carolina. I spend most of my waking hours with E. This week she started working at Sheri’s gift shop, which has kept her busy and she loves the activity. We’ve been running almost every day, which is awesome fun! And I started teaching her how to use watercolors, since she already knows about oil paints and wanted to try something new. In the mornings I am left to myself. To be honest, time alone is a little bit weird, because I have no friends here. So I’ve been baking a lot. I don’t know what happened- it’s like someone turned on the Betty Crocker switch. I made a pie, cookies, muffins, cookies (again), a cobbler, and cupcakes within a couple weeks. Yikes. Sheri and I can’t even eat that much! So I had to pause the baking until we finish all the food I made, and resorted to reading.

The nearest thing happened to be Les Misérables , which I resolved to read before the new movie comes out at Christmas. That monster of a novel has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I didn’t know what I was missing out on. This is a beautiful story about redemption. It’s hard to read it and not think about the Gospel. Do I have a new favorite book? I definitely think so. (I’m officially stoked to see the movie.)

The story centers on a man named Jean Valjean: a criminal. He is released after spending 20 years in prison. Upon his release, he is given a yellow passport, which marks him as a dangerous criminal wherever he goes. Due to his yellow passport, he is unable to find anywhere to stay, though he has money. He is rejected by society and denied basic necessities: food, water, shelter. He finds himself free from bondage and yet judged by the people around him. In the words of the narrator,

“Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave the galleys behind, but not his condemnation.”

Substitute the word “prostitute” for convict, and you may understand a little better what it feels like to be a victim of sex trafficking.

Liberation is not deliverance. A prostitute may leave the streets behind, but not her condemnation.

Girls who are rescued from situation of sex trafficking often feel bound by shame because society does not welcome their freedom. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Once a slut, always a slut.” Unfortunately, that is the attitude many girls face when leaving a life of prostitution. Rap says you “Can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” I know plenty of girls who wonder how they’re supposed to hope for a normal life. How to go back to high school when all your classmates know you were a ho? How to get a boyfriend when he knows all of the things you did? How to get a job when your boss sees you have a record? The world doesn’t welcome these girls with open arms, which partly explains why many of them never leave. Teenage trafficking victims turn into lifelong strippers and prostitutes because it’s the only world where they are still welcomed. Society scorns them, though Newsweek says at least 15% of men have paid for sex. (Why does the shame fall on these women? Who shames the man that pays for sex?)

Maybe it’s time we started thinking from another perspective. Maybe it’s time to stop calling people “bitch,” “ho,” “whore,” and “slut.” Maybe it’s time to stop making fun of prostitutes, and maybe it’s time to stop acting like they’re so dirty. Maybe those girls are prostitutes because they were trafficked in their teens. And maybe they’re still prostitutes because you’ve shown them they don’t have a shot at getting out. So what if she’s had sex with a hundred men? That doesn’t always mean she wanted to. The organization I am working with runs a call center which makes calls to strip clubs and brothels all over the United States. They have offered help many women who work in the sex industry. It isn’t unusual for a girl on the other end of the phone to begin crying and say, “You really think you can help me get out?”

Maybe it’s time to be compassionate. The Bible says that God is extremely compassionate. He doesn’t shame us for our sins; he has cast them into the sea and chosen to remember them no more. Our liberation is complete! Our freedom is abundant. We are free from both the consequences and shame of our sin, because Christ has taken them for us on the cross. What right do I have to condemn another when I have been forgiven of so much? None. And how can I deny hope to another when I have been given an everlasting hope? I can’t. So I thank God for his grace in my life and extend the same grace he’s shown to me. I do what I can to let them know they’re loved and offer hope for a different kind of life so that they too can come to know a deeper and lasting hope in Christ. Maybe you can pray for their hearts also.


victim porn

Someday soon, I am going to start sharing (directly, through writing, and indirectly, through art) the stories of some trafficking victims I know. Before I do that, we need to have a serious talk.

Right now, in our world, it’s really cool and hipsterly to be an activist. These activist people make films, write books, take pictures, record music, create art, and wear t-shirts in the name of activism. I love to see people use their different talents for the helpless and unspoken for. But sometimes, we activist people get really caught up in our activist causes. We start to think, “My cause is really important,” and we talk it up- big time. We tell the saddest stories we’ve ever heard, come up with incredible statistics that would frighten anyone, and show pictures of helpless looking children to sad music like that annoying humane society commercial. We talk about victims, tragedies, and horrific acts that are hard to believe. We do it because we care about the issues, but our care can be misplaced.

Once, I heard somebody (I wish I could remember who!) term this issue “victim porn.” It’s not actual porn. What I mean is sensationalizing tragedies to get a reaction from people. We focus on the most outrageous and terrible stories, and then we gawk and stare, as if we’ve just seen a terrible car accident. Along the way, I’ve learned that this probably isn’t the best way to handle things. Listen, if you want an ugly story, you can probably find one. By now, I’ve read a lot of ugly stories, and met a lot of people who have survived unbelievable abuse. And I bet you could find a worse statistic or a worse story. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evil in human hearts, and it’s easy to find. But focusing on the tragedies isn’t always helpful because we forget about the people involved.

Behind every tragedy is a regular person. Regular people don’t want to be poked and prodded about the ugliest parts of their lives. They’re humans, not zoo exhibits. (Though I don’t recommend poking or prodding zoo animals, either.)  Regular people need to be loved. Victims of tragedies need to be outrageously loved. Thankfully, I have a God that loves me outrageously- so much that my cup overflows. So I always have a lot of extra love to give away, and with his strength, I plan to do just that. So, when we talk about victims, remember they’re people. The victims I know have all been removed from situations of trafficking; now they’re regular people trying to move on. About 50 times a day, E tells me “I wish I could just have a regular life.” She wants to go to college. She wants to get a job. She wants a house so she can decorate it beautifully. And she wants a chihuahua. (Actually, she wants 5 chihuahuas. I’m not even joking. She loves them.) I’m not here to sell her victim status and get people to join the cause. I’m here to tell you the truth about what trafficking looks like. And then I’m here to love her with the extravagant love that God has poured into my heart. I hope and pray that she’ll see Christ in me and learn to love him, too.


but seriously, what is trafficking anyway?

So you might be wondering by now, what is human trafficking? After all, I keep running my mouth about it. Maybe you have some vague ideas, like doesn’t it kind of have to do with slavery? Or maybe you have a huge brain and you know all kinds of stuff about human trafficking in there. In which case, I’d totally love for you to share with me, since I kind of just found out about trafficking. And I was super embarrassed when I realized this kind of stuff goes on in the world today, in my own city! As it turns out, I’m not a brainiac and I still have a lot to learn. Don’t be ashamed, friends; we can’t know everything. But we can do something with the things we do know.

The question is: what is human trafficking? The main idea is this: trafficking occurs when one person obtains or holds another person for compelled service. (You can thank Hillary Clinton for that spicy definition, which I took from the 2011 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report.) When one guy tries to keep another guy for some reason, that’s trafficking.

But that’s sort of vague, right? And maybe you’re still confused, because that could mean a lot of different things, really. Here’s the deal. “Human trafficking” is a blanket term that covers a lot of different circumstances. There are many particular cases that look nothing alike but still fall under the category of human trafficking. Seriously, there’s so much information that I could write a book about this stuff. Thankfully, I don’t need to, because a bunch of people already did that. Someday soon I’ll post a list of books and things you can check out if you really want to know more.

Here are a few different forms of human trafficking. (Again, you can look at the above link to see where I got this information.)

Involuntary servitude, aka forced labor, is one kind of human trafficking.  This happens when one person makes another person work for against his will. You might see this kind of trafficking in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, where men and boys are forced to harvest cocoa beans that we use to make our chocolate. This kind of trafficking occurs in the United States when girls or women are kept (involuntarily) as household servants without pay. One of my friends was trafficked to the U.S. for this purpose.

A subcategory of forced labor is forced child labor. The circumstances are the same- except that a child is forced to work against his or her will. One example of child labor occurs in northern India, where children are kidnapped and forced to weave carpets for as many as 20 hours a day.

Sex trafficking is another kind of human trafficking. In cases of adults, this happens when a  person is forced or manipulated into prostitution. In cases of children, this happens any time a child is used for commercial sex, whether they were “willing” or not. Sex trafficking happens a lot, everywhere. To give one example, this kind of trafficking is very common in Europe. Women from the Balkans are lured into Western Europe by promises of jobs that could provide for their families. When they arrive, they are forced into prostitution. When I was in Peru, I met 12-16 year old girls that were victims of this kind of trafficking. It’s important to know that sex trafficking occurs frequently in the U.S., also. The sex trade is a huge industry in our country as in the rest of the world, because there is a lot of demand for sex. The organization I am interning with, On Eagles Wings Ministries, runs two shelters that are especially focused on victims of sex trafficking.

Debt bondage is another form of trafficking. This happens when a job recruiter offers someone a job for a cost. For example, if I were an immigrant wanting to come to the U.S., I would be interested in finding a job. But it would cost me a lot of money just to get to the U.S. So a recruiter could say “I’ll pay for you to get to the U.S. and then I’ll give you a job. All you have to do is work off the debt.” Some people think this sounds fair. The problem is that the debt is used as a form of leverage to control the worker. Some recruiters will add to the debt as time passes, or tell the worker they owe an incredibly high amount of money, so that he is never able to leave. Then the debt can be passed down from generation to generation- in some countries of the world, individuals are still working to pay off the debts of their ancestors. This kind of trafficking still occurs in many parts of the world today, including the U.S. But to give a historical example, debt bondage was used by plantation owners in the South after the Civil War so that they didn’t lose their free labor. Plantation owners would give a former slave a job on the same plantation where he was a slave. Then, the owner would give the slave a house, clothing, and food each year, which he would have to pay back later on. By the time he harvested his crops and paid what he “owed” the plantation owner, there would somehow be no money left over, no matter how much he produced. So he’d have to take out another “loan” for food and clothes and seed for the next year, and go through the same process all over again.

Child soldiering is another kind of human trafficking. This occurs any time a child is forced or tricked into being a combatant in an armed forces. Child soldiering is especially famous in many countries in Africa, where various armed forces in various civil wars have recruited children. Children have been used as combatants, cooks, spies, and messengers. Girls are often used for sexual gratification for soldiers. You can read one riveting account of a child soldier from Sierra Leone in A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah.

This answer is by no means complete, but I hope you can get an idea about trafficking in general terms. It happens a lot of different places, in a lot of different ways, to a lot of different people. Abe Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but there are still a lot of people in the world who are in some kind of bondage, whether you want to call it slavery or not. Now, I’m not totally crazy- I realize that keeping a blog and making some artwork isn’t going to abolish slavery. I’m not here to do that. I’m here for two jobs:

1. To let other people know what’s out there, because I didn’t know! And ignorance, sadly, is not bliss.

2. To support a few individuals who are committed to freeing some of those still in bondage today. See, I’m not going to change the world. But I know some people who are trying their best! But helping people costs a lot of money! And you don’t really have time to make money when you’re busy trying to change the world. So they need people like me to say “Hey! I have some art. I really like art. I’d like to sell some art, so you can have some money, so you can change the world.” It’s kind of average, really. But I’d love your support, and I’m betting they would love your support, too. So keep reading, keep praying for the victims of this crime, and who knows where we’ll end up.


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