Human trafficking has many faces and forms. There’s the pimp enslaving and exploiting young girls in cities across the United States – where an estimated 100,000 girls are trafficked at present. There are the men who buy young boys in Ghana, forcing them into lives of servitude and hard labour, spending long days in flimsy boats in the Lake Volta region, hunched over their fishing lines under a scorching sun.
Not My Life, a powerful documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Robert Bilheimer, tells the stories of survivors of human trafficking around the world, painting a picture of this horrific crime that many people still think of as a phenomenon confined to remote corners of the developing world.
But virtually no country is free of trafficking and most of the victims are poor, said panelists following a screening of the film in New York this week. It’s a crime characterized by three main elements: force, fraud and coercion – which can happen anywhere.
UNICEF’s Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, a specialist in human trafficking, said key to soliciting action against trafficking is to make people understand that it’s happening “right here in our own backyard” because “most people don’t know,” she said.
The film also stressed this point by, for example, telling the story of Angie, a young woman from Kansas, who was trafficked into prostitution when she was a teenager who had run away from home.
Mike Beaver, an FBI special agent who worked on Angie’s case, said in the documentary that “Angie was, by all accounts, an all-American girl” who came from a good home, educated and with a good family.
Lauren Hersh, Equality Now’s director in New York, stressed the importance of survivors’ stories not only because they’re powerful and more likely to trigger empathy and engagement in the cause, but also because people who have been trafficked often know which anti-trafficking approaches work and which don’t.
Hersh called on women’s rights advocates convened at this year’s U.N. Convention on the Status of Women (CSW) to take tough actions to end human trafficking.
“There must be a standalone goal on gender-based violence (coming out of CSW),” she said. “We need to look at the legal framework to see if the right laws are in place. We need to make sure the trafficker gets the right punishment and we have to look at decriminalizing the victim.”
An increasingly popular argument, in the fight against trafficking but also when we talk about women’s rights more broadly, is a greater need to engage men. Ted Bunch of non-profit organization A Call to Men does just that.
He pointed out that the driving force behind the human trafficking industry is men and that, therefore, there’s a real necessity to educate and work with men, change their attitudes and the way men view women.
Bunch pointed out that young boys inherit sexist and misogynist attitudes from previous generations. And porn – even hard core porn now accessible to virtually everyone with an internet connection - also plays a big role in shaping the minds of young men.
“In porn, women look willing, they look like they’re enjoying (what’s being done to them) and men and boys feel legitimated,” he said.
Adopted by Sweden, Norway and Iceland, the so-called “Nordic model” – which includes tougher sentences for purchasers of sex and pimps and the decriminalization of sex workers – has worked in changing people’s attitudes, especially those of young boys, towards the sex industry and the women in it, panelists said.
“(The Nordic model) instilled in people the idea that buying sex is not okay and it’s not a rite of passage,” Pasnak-Lapchick said, noting it has led to a significant drop in the purchase of sex in those countries.