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Sex Trafficking: President Obama's Challenge Of Faith

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President Obama's speech September 25 at the Clinton Global Initiative focused squarely on human trafficking, a complex phenomenon that he called by the name it truly deserves: slavery. It is, he said, "barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."'

Obama paid tribute to religious ideals in several significant ways. First, he invoked a faith core of American values as he linked justice and faith. Echoing the Emancipation Proclamation, he called addressing modern slavery "'an act of justice,' worthy of 'the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.'" He invoked the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho: "We've got to be moved by compassion. We've got to bind up the wounds."

Obama paid explicit tribute to a long time coalition of Christian-inspired organizations like International Justice Mission and others that have, inspired by their faith, fought courageously and tirelessly to halt trafficking and to shine a spotlight on it. He praised men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, "are truly doing the Lord's work".

And Obama alluded to the power of an issue like trafficking to transcend political and religious divisions because of its appeal to common human decency and caring, qualities that he sees in the alliances and coalitions of very different faith groups to fight this dark side of our modern times.

Obama's speech came just before the much anticipated screening on October 1 and 2 of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide". This PBS program is based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book that contrasts sharply women's vital roles and strengths with the continuing repression they face in many parts of the world. Trafficking for sex is a core theme. It's a powerful book that is especially moving for women, calling them to action.

The World Faiths Development Dialogue, the organization I lead, set out two years ago to explore what was happening as faith motivations translate into faith action in Cambodia around this very issue. Why Cambodia? Because it is an epicenter for trafficking and for efforts to combat it.

After the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-79), years of social and political turmoil shattered Cambodia. As something like normal life returned, compassionate organizations from many countries, especially America, many of them Christian in their roots and inspiration, flocked to Cambodia eager to help. Their work has helped Cambodia to become what it is today, a bustling and complex society where young people dream of the kind of life they see on television.

Among many other ills and sorrows, NGOs and journalists saw with horror the visible evidence of a brutal trafficking of people, and especially sex trafficking. Traffickers preyed on vulnerable young girls, women, and children, and perverted people from around the world were lured to what seemed an uninhibited society where laws and institutions shattered by decades of violence could do little to enforce standards.

Horror stories about trafficking and about the children and women who were its victims moved people. Stories from Cambodia were a goad to the passage of legislation in the US that set up systems to monitor trafficking and provide support to efforts to prevent, protect, and prosecute, and to build partnerships. Some groups in Cambodia were already working to rescue children and women trapped in brothels, and to rehabilitate them. Many others, moved by the stories flocked to Cambodia eager to help. Many came with little knowledge of Cambodia's history and culture, far less about what other development groups were doing. They were fired with anger at the evils of trafficking and their first instinct was to tackle the symptoms they saw.

Today many Christian organizations are actively pursuing this work - it's very hard to say exactly how many, partly because some work very independently and the definitions of precisely what constitutes trafficking (or efforts to combat or prevent it) are not crystal clear. But probably around 60 explicitly Christian organizations are at work (we identified just one Buddhist group that works within a similar framework, though some 95 percent of Cambodians are Buddhists). In short this has been a cause with special appeal for a range of evangelical Christians, who have many allies.

President Obama called for every faith community to take action, educating their congregations, and "joining in coalitions that are bound by a love of God and a concern for the oppressed." He's directed his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to make the fight against human trafficking a focus of its work. In his call he harks back to the hope that was alive when the anti-trafficking legislation passed in 2000 - that an evil like trafficking and oppression of women and children could help to break down bitterness and barriers among religious and non-religious actors so that we can, as a nation, work together. There's a lot to learn from experiences like those in Cambodia - there are superb models, some bitter lessons, and a much clearer sense now of the challenges and the path ahead. Here's hoping that Obama is right: that we are ready to join hands in the effort and to "bind up the wounds" and be moved by compassion to action.