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Conference on human trafficking
calls for grass-roots involvement

New York, October 2, 2008 -- Rani Hong's resonate voice broke with emotion as she addressed more than 70 participants in an Ecumenical Conference on Human Trafficking, held at the Church Center for the United Nations September 29 - October 1.

Hong, once a child slavery victim in India, now lives in Olympia, Wash., where she is a vigorous activist against the crime of human trafficking.

"If I stay silent, I'm letting the traffickers win," Hong told the conferees. "We tell (survivors) that they have value, we tell them they have a voice to be heard. We are raising up an army of survivors."

The Conference, sponsored by the National Council of Churches and the United Methodist Women's Division, was called to expose participants to the complexity of the issue and to plan strategies to combat it.

"Trafficking of humans is the third largest criminal industry in the world," said the Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, director of Womens Ministries for the NCC. "The NCC Governing Board recently passed a resolution declaring that  the involuntary bondage and sale of human beings is a crime against humanity and a sin against God. The resolution calls upon NCC member communions to educate their congregations about human trafficking and advocate for policies that will bring an end to trafficking, and this conference is an important step toward that goal."

Hong's experience is distressingly typical. She was born and raised in Southern India, but at seven she was sold to a child broker without her mother's knowledge. The severe beating and abuse she received at the hands of her traffickers made her appear so physically and mentally ill that her broker discarded her into the streets of India as unfit for their financial gain.  In 1979, Hong was given freedom through adoption into the U.S.

"There is an entire network of people who make trafficking possible," Hong told the conference. "It includes medical doctors, practitioners, others who get paid under the table every time a transaction is made."

The participation of apparently reputable people makes the crime difficult to investigate, she said.

Hong said she would have been lost without the intervention of her adopted mother, Nell. "It took one person to stand up and say, 'I will take care of you. She told me, you have a future, you can do something with your life."

Today, with her husband, Trong Hong, who was forced to be a child soldier in Vietnam, Hong has formed the Tronie Foundation to spread the word about human trafficking and its victims. "Their voice needs to be heard," she said. "We share our stories to give hope."

Churches on the move

Several conferees told how their churches have become involved in the struggle against trafficking.

Dr. Mary Streufert of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shared a PowerPoint presentation that she uses to tell groups about the issue.

It's not easy to gauge the full extent of the crime, but statistics gathered by the U.S. State Department and others groups are daunting.

Some 12.3 million persons around the world have been forced into bondages labor or sexual slavery, Streufert said. In the U.S., between 14,500 and 17,500 people -- and probably many more -- have been victims of human trafficking.

In what became bywords for the conference, Streufert urged participants to take a good look at the situation and follow the Biblical mandate to, "Consider it," she said. "Take Counsel. And speak out."

Barbara Anderson, an American Baptist laywoman from Arlington, Mass., described "Break the Chains," a project of American Baptist Women's Ministries that encourages women in local churches to get involved.

"If change is going to happen, it will happen from the ground up," Anderson said.

And God will multiply all efforts, no matter how small, she said.

"A woman in Maine sold $500 worth of aprons she made and gave the money to 'Break the Chains,' she said. The story got into the local press and so many more people now know about human trafficking. It shows what women in the pews can do."

When a concerned law enforcement officer lamented to her there were no safe houses in Massachusetts for teenaged sex slavery victims, Anderson said she knew what she was going to do next. "I'm going to get all the women of faith in my community together to see what we can do to make it happen in Massachusetts."

Reasons to be optimistic

As alarming as the statistics are, there are signs that actions against trafficking are starting to be effective.

"There is reason to be optimistic," said Carol Smolenski, executive director of EPCAT USA, an organization formed to end child prostitution, child pornography and child trafficking for sexual purposes.

"There has been so much acting and passing of laws. Just so you know, we're actually making progress."

An important step forward is that state law enforcement officials are less likely to think of prostitutes under 18 as criminals, Smolenski said. "They're not as likely to be thought of as prostitutes who need to be arrested and prosecuted, but as victims who need our help." However, that understanding is not so prevalent at local levels, "so we still have a lot of work to do."

Another sign of progress is that sex tourists -- American men who travel to southeast Asia to purchase sex with children -- can be prosecuted when they return to the U.S., Smolenski said.

"Unfortunately, it's still easy to slip out of a country where the crime was committed, but U.S. immigrations and Customs officials are doing a good job enforcing this law," Smolenski said. "They love catching these guys."

One of the reasons sexual trafficking persists is that U.S. and European culture tends not to regard the purchase of sex as a crime. Many prostitutes under 18 assure their johns that they are in the profession by choice.

"You need to talk to the men in your lives and help them realize these are not victimless crimes," Smolenski said. "Make sure churches are mentoring every child in their purview. There is help for every family under pressure."

She urged international travelers to keep an eye out for sexual trafficking and to report their suspicions to authorities. EPCAT sells luggage tags, "Travelers Take Action Against Sex Slavery and Trafficking," which keep travelers aware of the issue.

Sonia Ossorio, president of New York City's National Organization for Women, said the male myth that prostitutes enjoy their profession can be dispelled by reading the "John Boards," Web sites where men rate the brothels and women they have patronized. Women who talk to the men often begin the interview by saying, "in the first six months I cried a lot," according to Ossorio.

Some New York beat cops still think of prostitution as a victimless crime, Ossorio said. She encouraged conferees to take part in the "Ask a Cop" program -- stopping officers to ask questions about trafficking and what it is.

"We find that the information is not filtering down," she said. "Cops don't understand. They think if victims are not locked in a container, it's not trafficking."

Farm labor: often legalized trafficking

Virginia Nesmith, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, noted that migrant farm laborers are often subjected to a legalized form of trafficking. "It's intrinsic to the system," she said.

Farm owners have set up an organization called Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE), and mega-industries like McDonalds and Burger King have preferred to relate to SAFE rather that deal directly with the workers themselves, Nesmith said.

This lack of communication has resulted in the exploitation of farm workers who are often forced to work in harsh climates for inadequate wages. In extreme cases, workers have been loaded in box cars, chained to posts and beaten. Many workers recruited by farm agents hesitate to complain because they lack citizen documents or work permits.

"We need to educate people to be on the alert," Nesmith said. "We put signs in restrooms used by workers, with phone numbers of people who can help them. It's important to have people in police departments trained in the language of immigrant workers." She cited instances in which translators used by police were the exploiters themselves.

Expert witnesses

Other women who made presentations at the conference included:

Sr. Helene Hayes, who reported on research in the sex trade that has included testimony from former victims. ("I am very bitter. A hatred grew within me. I kept saying to myself, I'm not supposed to be here" ... "One of the girls jumped from a building and died. I envied her.")

Laura J. Lederer, an attorney who works for the U.S. State Department. "We have now a full victim-centered approach. Survivors have a lot to contribute, to strengthen our programs. A survivor taught me about the 'double witness statutes' in many countries. That requires the word of a second witness because the woman is not to be trusted because she is a prostitute. But the only other witnesses are pimps and johns."

Ana White, Immigration and Refugee Policy Analyst for the Episcopal Church. "We need a lot of people to engage with their state legislators. Use all media that you can to spread the word about this. Media (are) very uneducated about local trafficking."

Una Stevenson, a Church Women United and EPCAT volunteer and a PCUSA laywoman.. "People in prisons may have children who are in danger of being trafficked."

Amy Hartman, national director of Cherish Our Children, a community of Evangelical Lutherans dedicated to preventing the sexual exploitation of children through prayer and action. "In congregations, God is at work. God has touched people out there. It's our job to help move them along."

Read the NCC resolution on trafficking here.

See also: World Council of Churches statement on  trafficking
                   World Council of Churches Contact, special issue on trafficking

Other important links:

Photos by Philip E. Jenks

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228,

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