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Global: Child sex trafficking - ravaged innocence

Publish Date: 01 Sep 2006

Sep/Oct 2006
Source: Social Work Today, Vol. 6 No. 5 P. 22
By Matthew Robb, MSW, LCSW-C

International Child Sex Trafficking — Ravaged Innocence

A multibillion-dollar global industry profits from sexual abuse and exploitation of destitute children.

Shortly after her ninth birthday, Tatiana was snatched from a playground in her native Ukraine, smuggled into Germany, and sold into the country’s booming commercial sex industry.

At the age of 9, Tatiana had become a sex slave. By 12, she was pregnant. By 14, she had undergone her third abortion. Two weeks later, she committed suicide, never to be abused again. Just another faceless victim of international trafficking, the girl who once loved horses was buried in an unmarked grave not 200 feet from a garbage dump.

Social workers cling to the belief that humanity is becoming more enlightened. But the grim record of the early 21st century finds millions of the world’s children caught in a web of pornography, prostitution, and sexual servitude. Far from a historic blight, slavery is alive and well—and victimizing the most vulnerable among us.

Humanitarian organizations have long sounded the alarm. Only recently have policy makers taken notice. Today, we know that even the most “enlightened” nations are beset by child sex trafficking. Inside the worst offender countries, meanwhile, this depraved practice is rampant, finding government leaders not batting an eye as children are sold like sex toys.

The problem is alarming, and the numbers are sobering:

• The United Nations (UN) estimates that 10 million children and women worldwide “are ensnared within the system of commercial sexual exploitation.”

• Each year, more than 1 million children enter the global sex trade, translating into some 30 million children over 30 years “who have lost their childhood” through rape and exploitation.

• In India alone, more than 2.3 million females are forced sex workers—one half of them young girls. Of these, only 2,000 (fewer than one tenth of 1%) are rescued each year.

• An annual pilgrimage of 300,000 Japanese male “sex tourists” has elevated prostitution into the Philippines’ fourth largest income producer. Demand is particularly high for young girls and boys.

• An estimated 16,000 children and women are annually trafficked into the United States for sexual services—and the trend is accelerating.

• Likening it to the tip of a shadowy iceberg, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials recently counted 250 brothels in 26 U.S. cities staffed with trafficking victims. Currently, an estimated 200,000 American children work in the U.S. sex industry.

According to the U.S.-based organizations Shared Hope International and Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) Project, children and women are trafficked inside the United States to satisfy this nation’s insatiable appetite for pornography, prostitution, strip clubs, and massage parlors. Some trafficked children—mostly females—are sold directly to brothels, netting handlers quick cash while forcing innocent captives to purchase their freedom by sexually servicing dozens of men each week.

Against a backdrop of high-risk sex, HIV, hepatitis, street drugs, and pathologically abusive men, these children can expect a life prophesied long ago by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Let there be no doubt: Child sex trafficking is a social work issue.

The Dark World of Trafficking
Trafficking is not the same as human smuggling. Smugglers help individuals gain illegal entry into a destination country and set them free. Trafficking victims, by contrast, arrive as modern-day slaves and typically die as emotionally scarred individuals.

Human trafficking comes in two forms: forced sex and forced labor. Sex trafficking entails the commercial trade of an individual for purposes of prostitution, pornography, forced marriage, and/or involuntary servitude.

The UN defines trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons.” Although definitions vary, human rights groups agree on the following three key points:

• trafficking abrogates the fundamental human right to self-determination;

• no person in possession of the facts would freely consent to being trafficked; and

• prostitution and pornography exploit children and women, regardless of consent.

Trafficking is a booming global industry. The UN has identified it as “the world’s second-largest and second-fastest growing criminal enterprise,” trailing only the illegal drug trade. It shouldn’t surprise people that trafficking is also lucrative. A trafficker’s initial $2 investment in food to lure a child may net him $10,000, when she is sold to a brothel or online pornographer.

The Big Picture
Of an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 humans trafficked across international borders each year, 50% are believed to be minors. The largest outflow of trafficked children and women come from the former Communist nations of Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Romania. Rounding out the list are China, Thailand, and Nigeria.

The world’s trafficking epicenter is southern Asia, with Thailand, the Philippines, and India leading the pack. Since the Iron Curtain’s 1989 fall, however, ailing Eastern Europe has witnessed an explosion of trafficking, as desperate women searching for opportunity in the West become easy prey.

The record is hardly more encouraging in the Western democracies. The Future Group, a Calgary, Canada-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), recently graded eight western nations on their antitrafficking records and flunked Canada for its “abysmal” performance. The United Kingdom received a D, while the United States scored highest with a B+. Some observers believe The Future Group is a generous grader and see tremendous need for improvement within the United States.

The Victims
The preponderance of trafficked children and women come from the world’s most impoverished, violence-wracked areas. The slums of Nairobi, Calcutta, and Djakarta—as well as the impoverished villages in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic—are fertile trolling grounds for traffickers. Children and adults raised amid sectarian violence, social decay, grinding poverty, discrimination, hatred, or abusive homes tend to see the rest of the world through rose-colored glasses.

The feminization of poverty also exposes children and women to exploitation. In the Ukraine, the $30 average monthly salary for workers has triggered an unprecedented outflow of young women and children. Indigent single mothers may hope to send money back home from prospective new jobs in Germany or the Netherlands, only to arrive and quickly be forced into prostitution. Arriving in a strange land, without proper documentation, language skills, money, or family support, young women are easy marks for pimps. Resistance is often met with death threats against family members or threats to report these women to customs officials.

In a practice that stuns most Westerners, some families struggling under abject poverty sell one or several children so the family may feed itself for another few months. Seth Allen, MSW, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says families may believe a (disguised) trafficker’s assurances that he will find the child suitable employment in a distant factory, only to learn the ugly truth too late—if ever.

Even affluent areas are not immune from traffickers. Pimps are known to comb streets and alleys for runaways, gaining their compliance with promises of food, money, clothes, or stardom. Their territory includes upscale American communities, shopping malls, and tourist spots. The Global Fund for Women has documented trafficking’s rapid inroads into America’s suburbs and small towns. Some young women, it reported, were forced to engage in sex with as many as 500 men to erase their “bondage debt.”

In 1998, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documented cases of young Chinese women trafficked into New York’s brothels being held until they satisfied $40,000 debt bondages—one “client” at a time. In Central America, captive young girls are often forced to sexually service 50 to 100 men daily, sometimes in outdoor wooded settings or in “mobile brothels.”

While impoverished countries may suffer from roving gangs, Western nations have access to broadband Internet that brings scenes of child-animal copulation and live sadomasochistic torture of children to a coast-to-coast viewing audience. Elsewhere, sexual predators are known to scour online chat rooms for naive, vulnerable youths. Experts emphasize that this entire trafficking network—from abductions to forced sex to online publishing—is driven by pedophilia, greed, and public apathy.

Trapped by Fear
Why don’t trafficked children try to escape? Some do, but most children enmeshed in prostitution or pornography feel trapped. Returning home, they fear, would bring dishonor to their families, contempt from potential suitors, and a lifetime label of “rape victim.” Some children are ambivalent about leaving the world of forced sex, if only because they believe life worse in their homeland.

Former U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith (R-WA) has seen the face of trafficking around the world. Today, she heads Washington, DC-based Shared Hope International, whose mission focuses on restoration, intervention, and prevention. This widely praised NGO staffs shelters for victims of trafficking worldwide.

Exploring the mind-set of the trafficked child, she says, “These girls and boys on the streets have been abused, beaten, arrested, called ‘whores’ or ‘hos,’ prevented from talking about their family, required to identify their pimps as their new family—they have been totally stripped of their humanity.

“Shared Hope International’s biggest population,” Smith adds, “is kids out of Nepal being trafficked into India’s industrial cities for workers. Because they do not belong to any caste, they are perceived as usable objects. Just like you casually eat or drink, these workers use a girl as a sex slave without the slightest concern.”

The Traffickers
While some children are pushed away by impoverished families, others are pulled into the international distribution pipeline by aggressive organized crime syndicates and roving bands of sociopaths.

Some traffickers acquire their human chattel by force or threat of force. Others resort to fraud, deception, drug use, or even feigned love. New captives are psychologically broken, often tortured or held inside a livestock pen without light, food, or water. Traffickers show not a glimmer of humanity for their victims. U.S. Customs agents routinely find tiny children destined for lives as prostitutes concealed inside the cavities of vehicles streaming north across the Mexican border. On one such occasion, curious agents found a girl hidden inside a colorful piñata in the trunk of a car. The threats needed to keep her compliant stagger the imagination.

Some traffickers troll refugee camps, hospitals, or airports. In June, the BBC documented instances of traffickers holding “slave auctions” inside the arrival terminals of international airports in Great Britain. While travelers and airport officials scurried about, brothel owners were seen bidding on girls and women slated for lives as prostitutes.

Supply and Demand
The stereotype of the skeevy predator trolling a suburban playground misses the larger truth about sex trafficking. Although experts say there is no reliable profile of predators, 20% of the world’s child “sex tourists” are U.S. citizens—virtually all male. The nations with the highest demand for trafficked females are the United States, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Israel, Japan, and Thailand.

Customers run the gamut, from the Fortune 500 senior executive searching for “a little extracurricular activity” in Shanghai to a group of frat brothers seeking steamy adventure in remote Jamaica.

According to Norma Hotaling, executive director of San Francisco-based SAGE Project, brothels are routinely staffed with children aged 12 to 16, but customers can procure them as young as the age of 5. Improved air and road travel in developed countries eases the Western sex tourist passage into the most remote “brothel villages” of southeast Asia and Central America. There, aid workers have noted increasing demand for younger and younger girls. Staff reports are replete with instances of Japanese businessmen soliciting oral sex from girls as young as age 5 and engaging in intercourse with 10-year-olds. Hotaling says this despicable practice has given rise to a whole new “rape for profit” industry.

“These trips are packaged as fun-filled getaway tours,” she says, “but these men aren’t going down to Thailand or Mexico or Haiti as tourists on vacation. They’re going down there to rape and sexually abuse children.”

Pedophilia drives demand, but so does greed and ignorance. In many cultures, men have sex with children as a way of avoiding infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Law enforcement, court officials, and politicians turn a blind eye, often with the help of bribes or political favors.

“Remember,” Hotaling says, “this is a $52 billion worldwide annual industry run by organized crime. As demand increases for children, so too does the need for supply. It feeds on itself like a wildfire. Behind every organized-crime person is a so-called ‘normal mind’ paying $1 at a time to gain access to women and children. These men don’t care if a girl is trafficked or if she’s a child at all.”

Hotaling adds, “We need to draw a line in the sand. We need to say, ‘No more!’ We need to look at the underlying issues of poverty, vulnerability, and homelessness—and start getting to work in a really serious way.”

Colliding Waves
Hotaling should know. Sexually abused as a child, she later became a traffic victim, served time in jail for prostitution, and thereafter struggled with a 21-year heroin dependency, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, she runs the world’s “first and largest” treatment program for solicitors of prostitution, which has since been replicated on four continents.

“We’ve been pushing against this [trafficking] wall for years....” she says. “Trafficking has been ignored for so long that it has gotten completely out of control.”

Hotaling sees a clear link between trafficking and the western world’s normalization of prostitution and pornography. “When you normalize or legalize prostitution,” she comments, “you’re normalizing the sexual abuse and rape of children and the trafficking of human beings. It’s really that clear.

“Trafficking isn’t an issue of free choice,” Hotaling adds. “Ultimately, the normalization of prostitution and pornography entails the powerful preying on the vulnerable. There are so many issues below the surface that traffickers and their customers are taking advantage of—emotional and economic vulnerability, gender bias, blatant discrimination, and more.”

Hotaling cites a recent Frontline (National Public Radio) broadcast that identified the world’s four major receiving countries of trafficked women. “All have legalized prostitution,” she says. Noting that child sex workers are especially prized by customers, she contends that prostitution and pornography are quintessentially antichild, antiwoman, and antisociety.

Smith agrees. She says studies demonstrate a clear link between prostitution and pornography, and the demand for younger children. Her organization’s own investigation shows that children are featured in at least one in five online pornographic images.

“The sad reality is that the creation of child pornography is largely driven by American citizens,” Smith says. “You can’t go into online pornography without soon automatically receiving rawer and rawer images. That’s the way the technology works.”

The western world’s tolerant attitude toward adult pornography, she says, has opened the door to a massive wave of so-called “child modeling” sites. “These children are posing almost naked and in very provocative positions,” she notes. “In just one month, we pulled up 5,000 of these sites.”

Smith finds the societal implications deeply troubling. “If online pornography is the norm for so many American male teens—and studies show it definitely is—what’s the next experience for them? What effect will this behavior have on their future relationships, marriages, and families?”

Hotaling, a self-avowed “1970s feminist,” is concerned about “third-wave” feminism’s libertarian, “anything goes” tolerance.”I think these third-wave feminists are unwittingly playing right into the hands of traffickers and pedophiles,” she says. “They haven’t worked in the trenches with the most exploited, vulnerable people imaginable. They seem unable to see harm in any of their interventions because harm runs counter to the free lifestyle they so enthusiastically embrace.”

Hotaling calls for a new debate that moves away from philosophical issues of ‘choice’ and toward a consensus view that sees a link between prostitution and pornography and the international sexual exploitation of children.

Searching for solutions, Shared Hope International’s Melissa Snow faults inadequate education and misguided involvement from the U.S. foster care system. Trafficked children run away from abusive homes, she says, “only to be identified by Child Protective Services and placed in a foster care situation which leads to more abuse. Many speak directly to the way the foster care system enabled their exploitation.”

Snow notes that social workers are already heavily involved in antitrafficking work. She expects the trend to accelerate as the movement toward “restoration” of traffic victims gains traction.
Allen agrees and says social workers are positioned to make major changes. “Whether they are frontline workers in communities or mental health specialists or policy types, they can educate themselves, be vigilant, and reach out to help victims.”

Smith offers additional ideas. “Let’s stop labeling these little girls and start calling them by their real names,” she says. “Let’s focus on job training, education, hope, and mastery. Let’s give these girls a purpose, a life-affirming plan, hope for their future, and help them start reestablishing who they really are.” Smith also calls for a renewed emphasis on “working upstream at the societal level,” through public education and specialized training.

But she also calls for tougher enforcement against predators. Exploitation of children needs to be a name-and-shame crime. “The bottom line,” she says, “is that no one is focused on arresting the client and treating him as a serious criminal raping children.”

— Matthew Robb, MSW, LCSW-C, is a social worker and a freelance writer residing in suburban Washington, DC.

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