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No Fair Trade for Women

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This week marks the premiere of Trade in local theaters, a powerful new film about the underworld of sex trafficking. The movie is inspired by a 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story by journalist Peter Landesman, and shares with it the revelation that human trafficking exists right here in our own backyards. The release of the film also testifies to the success that the women's movement has had in its sustained efforts over 10 years to bring an end to the traffic in human beings, partly by drawing much-needed media attention to this hidden human rights violation.

In the film, a 13-year-old girl from Mexico City is kidnapped by sex traffickers, smuggled across the Rio Grande border and held prisoner in a "stash house" in New Jersey on a street that looks just like thousands of other streets in suburban USA. The girl represents one of an estimated 18,000 - 20,000 people who are brought to the United States and used for forced labor or sex, according to State Department figures.

Many of them end up in my home state California; in fact, San Francisco is one of the biggest receiving ports for human cargo shipped in from Asia. Earlier this month, six people were indicted for running a trafficking ring in Los Angeles that lured young women from Guatemala with the promise of good jobs. Once they crossed the border, the women were forced into prostitution to pay off smuggling debts.

Today, human trafficking is approximately a $31.6 billion global industry, making it the third most lucrative criminal activity in the world after illegal drugs and black-market guns. Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that one to four million people are trafficked each year, the majority from Thailand, Mexico and Russia.

Here in the U.S., 34 states have laws that specifically address human trafficking, which President Bush called "a special evil." California led the way a few years ago by passing a comprehensive bill that makes human trafficking a felony and assists victims with social services to help rebuild their lives. Last May, New York State followed suit with similar legislation that cracks down on perpetrators.

Unfortunately, at the federal level, enforcement remains, at best, a work in progress. Federal laws aimed at prosecuting and punishing traffickers have few teeth because the Bush Administration has not committed the funds necessary to see them through. The number of trafficking investigations is also low: Between 2001 and 2006, the Department of Justice opened just 639 cases, resulting in 238 convictions. The resources allocated to address the crisis are simply not keeping pace with the rhetoric of the administration.

More importantly, as women's rights groups know from experience, a purely punitive approach to human trafficking is unlikely to achieve long-term results. The growth of the industry in recent times is closely linked to the economic inequalities caused by globalization. The extreme poverty that persists in developing countries often forces families and young women themselves to sell their bodies to survive. War and the presence of armed militias can exacerbate the problem as women's groups have documented in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Africa where HIV/AIDS has orphaned thousands, it is not uncommon for girls to be sold by relatives in order to pay for the care of their siblings.

Yet, none of these factors is as critical as the low status accorded to women and girls in most societies around the globe. This inequality continues to be at the root of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. When the value of a girl child's life is simply not the same as that of a boy, she will much more likely be abused both at home and in the workplace. Courageous women's rights activists are fighting these entrenched inequities around the globe. Many of them have received financial support from the organization that I lead. Our grants currently help over 100 organizations in 48 different countries run safe houses, advocate for legal change, and train law makers how to identify and protect victims of human slavery. But they also ensure that all girls have access to an education, women are trained in non-traditional occupations, and are empowered to make their own decisions about work and life. In Iraq, where precarious economic circumstances coincide with a total breakdown of law and order, the Organization for Iraqi Women's Freedom, a Global Fund grantee, runs three shelters for women and children who have been sold into forced labor.

In Mumbai, health workers and prostitutes are publishing a monthly magazine called Red Light Dispatch, written by and for women who work in local brothels and their families and distributed for free in Hindi and English. In Calcutta, sex workers have organized to advocate for their own rights. This past March, 500 young women who had been trafficked into India from Nepal organized a national meeting in Katmandu. They demanded that the government provide economic opportunities, not only for themselves but for their poor peasant families who eke out a living on the rocky mountainsides and cannot afford to feed or clothe their own children.

These organizations see women as active agents of their own liberation, not merely as passive victims of exploitation. This reality on the ground contrasts -- sometimes markedly -- from the images we are used to seeing, even in courageous feature films like Trade. The activists we fund are not waiting for family members or the feds to deliver them from brothels or oppressive workplaces. They are choosing instead to become their own heroes and rescue other women and girls by helping them to challenge the status quo. They deserve no less than our wholehearted support.

Kavita N. Ramdas is President and CEO of Global Fund for Women.