After stepping off the podium at the United Nations, President Obama made a special commitment – to ending modern day slavery. Not just in remote corners of the developing world. But here in this country as well.
Many of the slaves today are girls. Born in this country. Hidden in plain view.
You see these girls around you. They are the lost girls, standing around bus stops, hanging out by runaway youth shelters, or advertised online. Here in D.C., they are right in front of you. At the Motel 8 or the Marriott, at McDonalds or the bars on U St. and Adams Morgan.
According to the FBI, there are currently an estimated 293,000 American children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. Forty percent of all human trafficking cases opened for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010 were for the sexual trafficking of a child. And while the term trafficking may conjure images of desperate illegal immigrants being forced into prostitution by human smugglers, 83 percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking cases in this country were American citizens.
The average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation for these children is between the ages of 12 and 14. They are abducted or lured by traffickers who prey on their trust. They are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and sometimes even branded. When they try to run away, the traffickers torture and or gang rape them.
They are girls like Jackie, who ran away from an abusive home at 13 only to be found alone and hungry by a trafficker who promised to love her like a father/boyfriend/Prince Charming. He sold her to at least six different men every night. When she begged him for food or rest, he beat her.
Young girls like Jackie are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling. It is less risky and more profitable to sell girls than crack cocaine or meth. The U.S. government spends 300 times more money each year to fight drug trafficking than it does to fight human trafficking. And the criminal penalties for drug trafficking are generally greater than the ones usually levied against those who traffic in girls.
A girl can be easily, discretely, and anonymously purchased online, on legitimate websites like Backpage.com. With the click of a mouse, the buyer has effectively purchased a girl for sex, with minimal risk of punishment.
Legally, men who purchase girls for sex are no different than men who snatch children off the street to violate them. Both are rapists. No child is permitted to have sex with an adult, much less sell her body — the law says she can’t consent. Yet arresting these perpetrators of child rape is rare, and prosecution is even rarer. In most cases, these men are politely referred to as “Johns” and set free. According to the international anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope, very few buyers of prostituted children are arrested or prosecuted in the United States.
In fact, when an arrest is made, it is often the child who ends up behind bars. Most girls in detention, are actually victims of trafficking and sexual violence. Jackie, and so many other girls like her, are repeatedly arrested and detained for prostitution, despite being children who were forced to sell their bodies. This must be the only time the abused child is incarcerated for being abused.
But that’s the problem — these girls are not considered victims. Here in the United States, we have the same child sex slave markets as in Cambodia, the Philippines, and India. Girls are sold to the very same types of men, and they are tortured in almost identical ways if they attempt to leave. Yet these girls, the girls from Southeast D.C. or South Central L.A., are seen as the “ho,” the bad girl, the hooker.
It is time to really see these girls and help them. Hopefully, the plans the President outlined will help these girls too—because no girl in America, in the 21st century, should be for sale.
And here is what you can do to fight against the exploitation and trafficking of girls:
- Support Rights4Girls leadership trainings for girl survivors to advocate for themselves and other girls subject to violence and exploitation.
- Tell your Representative or Senator to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s Reauthorization.
- Honor our girls everywhere by challenging the over-sexualization and merchandising of girls.
By Malika Saada Saar, executive director of Rights4Girls, a U.S. based human rights organization for young women and girls.