Uniting Against Slavery

Advocates and activists convened at the United Nations for “Combatting Slavery in the 21st Century,” determined to shine a light on the forced sexual exploitation and forced labor that enslave millions across the world.

Worldwide, two children are sexually trafficked every minute. “Consent is irrelevant…in the face of great vulnerability” is the gist of the Palermo Protocol, the United Nations document setting forth the terms of our global fight against human trafficking, which 159 countries have signed. If you’re a prostituted person who is younger than the age of consent, society still too often sees you as a criminal, when you are actually a victim of statutory rape. If you are prostituted and raped through force, fraud, or coercion, you had no real choice in the matter. And, on a larger scale, if you’re prostituted because it was the only way you can obtain shelter, or food, or because your life is devoid of financial security and opportunity, you too are being exploited. The continuum is shades of gray, and the vulnerability of victims in each category often makes these distinctions essentially meaningless.

In Covenant House’s New York City shelter a recent study revealed that 23 percent of the young people surveyed reported either being trafficked or engaging in survival sex. In New Orleans, which saw a doubling of reported human trafficking incidents between 2012 and 2013, another study showed a quarter of Covenant House male shelter residents and a third of female residents reported having traded sex for money or shelter. Given that 1.6 million young people experience an episode of homelessness each year in the United States, the potential scope of this problem is mind-blowing. Only one in 100 trafficking victims ever gets rescued.

If we could do half as good a job of creating a meaningful taboo in the United States around buying and selling young people for sex as we do around smoking, we’d be so much further along the road to eliminating demand. We must create the widest possible anti-trafficking movement. We have to transcend ideological and partisan lines and keep our eyes on the prize of justice for commercially sexually exploited children and young adults. Together, we can build a better world for the exploited, if first we allow ourselves to be led by them, and if we allow their truths and yearning for justice to help us construct a world where freedom for all means freedom for all.

Learn more at Kevin M. Ryan’s Huffington Post article: Combatting Human Slavery at the United Nations.

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