The atrocities of gender-based violence and sexual assault against women and girls too often found in the developing world are contemptible. Up to an alarming seven in ten women in the world will be the victims of violence. The majority at the hands of their husbands, intimate partners or someone they know. In South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by an intimate partner. In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.
Can't happen here? Sadly, it can. Here in the United States, we have a growing and significant problem where young girls are sold for sex. Estimates suggest that the number of girls at risk for commercial sexual exploitation per year in the U.S. is increasing, and we have limited ability to identify the girls or punish the men who pay to rape them. Gender is a major factor in sexual abuse. Females are five times more likely to be abused than males. The most vulnerable in our society are at greatest risk. Children living without either biological parent (foster children) are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children who live with both biological parents. The Internet has added fuel to a simmering fire, as pimps looking to make a buck learn online how to lure young girls with promises of a relationship, food and shelter. They then force the girls to post themselves, often using code words to advertise their young age on websites like backpage.com. The girls quickly learn that there is no happy ending, no boyfriend, no new family, but instead, a vicious cycle of violence, fear, and degradation.
The perpetrators of these crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Girls who are brought in through the criminal justice system are afraid to testify, and have little incentive to do so when they are treated like criminals instead of victims of crime. Speaking at a recent symposium hosted by the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking, Goldman Sachs and Johns Hopkins University, focused on meeting the needs of sexual trafficking victims in the U.S., Dr. Rebecca Campbell presented findings that detailed how most victims are not believed by legal system personnel, are treated in ways that exacerbate their trauma and distress, and the end result is very few successful prosecutions. Selling young girls for sex can turn a handsome profit and prison time, the cost of doing business, is typically minimal. Buying the girls is easier than ever, and facilitated with ease and privacy on the Internet. The lack of political will to prosecute buyers and sellers coupled with our refusal to treat these children as victims of sexual abuse, allows demand to flourish. The FBI says sex trafficking is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.
The sexual exploitation of children is too easy in our society. As part of our global commitment to improve the lives of women and girls, we can't forget these vulnerable girls in our own communities. Also demonstrated at the May 2nd multi-disciplinary convening of leading researchers and advocates at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, a universal screening system for sex trafficking needs to be established so that first responders and mandated child abuse reporters have a way to assess risk for commercial sexual exploitation. We must respond to the victims as children, and check our prejudice at the door. No matter what she has been through, or how she presents herself, a 13-year-old girl is always a victim, and NEVER a prostitute. Every child who has been sexually exploited by an adult must receive immediate medical and therapeutic treatment and a forensic interview conducted by a trained professional to collect the information necessary to prosecute the perpetrators. And perhaps most important, as a nation, we must be willing to look at our own blemishes before we point our fingers at our neighbors.
For more information on how to end the sexual exploitation of children, please visit endchildtrafficking.info.