10/08/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

We Insist on Your Dignity

One hundred fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that "all persons held as slaves... shall be free." Two weeks ago, President Obama reminded us that the vision of the Great Emancipator is not yet fulfilled. Addressing business, philanthropic, and political leaders gathered for the Clinton Global Initiative, he announced the Administration's focus on combating human trafficking, renewing America's promise that "our people... are not for sale."

Under a new Presidential Executive Order "Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts" contractors, subcontractors, and their employees working for the US government, are "expressly prohibited" from "the procurement of commercial sex acts." This announcement ensures that American tax dollars in no way support human trafficking.

In a dramatically personal address referencing his daughters, faith traditions, and the moral obligations of us all, the President described global human trafficking, including the crisis in our own country:

It ought to concern every person, because it's a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric ... I'm talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery.

In 1864, the Thirteenth Amendment declared that no one can be owned by another, yet today there are thousands held in modern day slavery. In the US, a majority of trafficking victims are women or girls who are forced into prostitution. On giveaway newspapers pages and bright computer screens, the ads are there. In crowded bars or elegant hotel lobbies, the transactions are made. Women and girls are bought for sex in the dark corners of our society protected by our willful ignorance.

Runaways are special targets. Taken in by predatory pimps and lured by the promise of a substitute for family, life in the shadows becomes their means of survival.

In the United States, the average age a girl enters prostitution is 13. By federal definition, all minors -- even those not under the control of a pimp -- are trafficking victims.

Let's be straight. The idea that girls really choose prostitution as a career instead of accounting, medicine, or full-time parenting is a myth. The overwhelming majority of women trapped in that life say they would leave if only they thought they could. Research data are grim: A prostituted woman is 200 times more likely to be murdered.

When the trafficking of women and girls is tolerated, where the buying and selling of people is allowed to flourish, the social costs rise and the risks to the innocent increase. Disease is spread. Girls become commodities. And what lesson does it teach our young men? Our daughters?

Accepting the trafficking of women and girls as a norm coarsens our culture. In his address, our President said, "as a nation, we've long rejected such cruelty." Yet sadly, with each purchase of another human, we become that much more callous to the casual cruelty of trafficking.

Fortunately change is possible. Prosecuting traffickers is one answer. But pimps bring in more than $200,000 from each person they control, so they can afford top-notch lawyers. Cases that take months, even years to build are often lost in court.

But surprisingly, buyers say they would stop if they thought they would be arrested. And they are breaking the law almost everywhere in the US. Effectively abolishing demand by enforcing the law in this way however, will take retraining police forces, who now pick up eight women for every one buyer.

Meanwhile, we need a robust and comprehensive approach to supporting survivors. Many have children they're determined to support but not the means. They need education, housing, and jobs, but also encouragement, counseling -- and community.

That's where each of us comes in. It will take us all to fulfill these proclamations. At the President's speech we stood near three women recognized for the price they paid in "the life." Now we stand proudly with President Obama, repeating to them his words: "We hear you. We see you. We insist on your dignity."