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In Our Own Backyard

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It's a multibillion dollar a year industry. It's the fastest growing and second largest criminal industry in the world. It is a market-driven business that is based on the fundamental principles of supply and demand. And what keeps this industry booming is the demand for cheap labor or services, or for commercial sex acts. Sex trafficking is big business, one of the world's biggest human rights issues and it's happening in our own backyard.

Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote that "Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery."

As part of this billion dollar industry, millions of men, women and children are trafficked into the United Stated every year. The Congressional Research Service's recent report on trafficking focuses on international and domestic human trafficking and U.S. policy responses. This report details some shocking statistics about trafficking:

  • As many as 17,500 people are believed to be trafficked into the United States each year, and some have estimated that 100,000 U.S. citizen children are victims of trafficking within the United States.
  • Based on national criminal justice and victim assistance data collected by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an estimated 58 percent of all trafficking cases involved sex trafficking.
Human sex trafficking is about exploitation in which thousands of women and children are trafficked and forced to join the commercial sex trade, better known as "prostitution." Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) reports that:
  • 79 percent of women in prostitution in one study gave an indication that they were in prostitution due to some degree of force.
  • In another study, 50 percent of the women and girls interviewed reported being kidnapped by pimps; 76 percent of those were beaten by pimps; and 79 percent were beaten by customers.
  • A study of 222 women in the sex trade in Chicago found that 44-50 percent of these women give the money they make in prostitution to someone else, and 79 percent believe they would be harmed if they stopped.
There are solutions to end sex trafficking and bankrupt this billion dollar industry.

The first is to end the demand for commercial sex and prosecute those who buy sex. The End Demand Illinois campaign is shifting law enforcement's attention to sex traffickers and people who buy sex, while proposing a network of support for survivors of the sex trade. To date, the End Demand campaign has led the passage of three laws that offer protections to survivors of the sex trade.

Meet Brenda, one of those survivors. Brenda Myers-Powell is the second survivor of sex trafficking in Illinois to successfully petition to have her prostitution convictions vacated under the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act. CAASE's End Demand Illinois campaign passed this law and their legal team offered Brenda free legal support to file her petition.

Brenda Myers-Powell is working on two other solutions, prevention and changing mentalities. In 2008, Brenda and Stephanie Daniels-Wilson started The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a survivor founded, survivor led and survivor focused agency to end human trafficking in Chicago. The Dreamcather Foundation is a nonprofit that works to prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and helps current prostitutes find confidence and stability beyond the limitations of their current lifestyle. The organization's services include mentorship and leadership to current sex workers who want to leave the commercial sex trade, as well as prevention curriculum and programs aimed to build confidence in young girls.

Changing mentalities and raising awareness is a key factor to ending sex trafficking. It is complicated and has many layers. An episode of Law & Order only tells part of the story. So it is easy not to believe that sex trafficking is real, happening here, or understand what it entails.

Innovative methods of advocacy can raise awareness . After a year and a half of research and interviews, Mary Bonnett, artistic director, Her Story Theater, wrote and created "Shadow Town" a play based on dozens of interviews from people involved with sex trafficking in Chicago including undercover detectives, caseworkers, FBI, vice squad, parents, pimps, therapists and trafficked girls and young women of Chicago. A portion of the proceeds from the play will go to the Dreamcatcher Foundation.

Outreach, prevention and intervention are all effective ways to help and keep people out of human trafficking. What other ways can we work together to end sex trafficking here and now in Chicago?

Below, I invite you to comment on this article.