Slavery is alive and well in the 21st century. This point hit home this past weekend, when I led a group of New York University students through the interactive human trafficking exhibit Journey co-sponsored by Oscar winner Emma Thompson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the Helen Bamber Foundation.
Journey is a traveling exhibit that brings to life the seven different stages of sex trafficking. Displayed across seven shipping containers, the exhibit serves as a vessel that carries you through the experiences of Elena, a minor victimized by this growing illegal enterprise.
As the exhibit reminds us, every minor involved in the sex industry was once an innocent child with dreams and aspirations. Such was the case of Elena, whose dreams quickly turned to nightmares - nightmares lived out over and over again in a brothel bed that in essence shackled her to a life of abuse and depression.
Interpol estimates that human trafficking is now the third largest transnational criminal enterprise in the world, behind drug trafficking and arms trafficking, and quickly closing in on the latter.
Sadly, approximately one-fifth of the estimated 12.3 million victims of trafficking are children.
Human trafficking entails a variety of despicable practices that deprive children of both their innocence and their dignity: involuntary servitude, debt bondage, forced soldiering, organ trafficking, and sex trafficking. The latter arguably has the greatest impact on children. According to the International Labor Organization, as many as 1.8 million children are exploited by the commercial sex industry - prostitution, pornography, and stripping - each year.
Often when we conjure up images of children exploited for sexual purposes, we imagine the brutality taking place in far off Third World countries. But as Journey reminds us, sex trafficking knows no bounds - it is just as prevalent in industrialized societies as it is in underdeveloped ones.
In the United States, for example, it is estimated that as many as 300,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation each year - 30,000 of which have been trafficked across our national borders. Just in New York City alone, the number of child sex trafficking victims is approximately 4,000.
Victims of sex trafficking are everywhere - probably right in your hometown. Unfortunately, child sex trafficking is a scourge that is often disregarded.
Despite the cruel nature of this business, most still view it as a simple crime, referring to the consumers as 'johns' rather than statutory rapists and the exploiters as 'pimps' rather than traffickers. Even more troubling, the children are frequently referred to as 'prostitutes' and handled like criminals. But in reality, they are the casualties of globalization-era slavery.
Hopefully, as Journey travels across the country, more of us will be motivated - inspired even - to bring the horrors of child sex trafficking out from behind the red light and under a big white spotlight where the exploitation and abuse can no longer go unnoticed.
To learn more about human trafficking and Journey, click here.