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Slavery’s Last Stronghold: Mauritania

Slavery’s Last Stronghold: Mauritania

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery and it was not made a crime until 2007. However, an estimated 10% to 20% of the population, an estimated 340,000 to 680,000, continues to live as slaves. Only one slave holder has ever been successfully prosecuted while activists are arrested for protesting the practice and the government denies it even exists. According to the journalists of CNN, it’s a maddening and complicated place, an aspect of the country that is made all the more difficult for outsiders to understand because no one is allowed to talk about slavery. When confronted with the issue, the country’s minister of rural development, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar stated that his country was among the freest in the world, saying “all people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists.”

However, victim accounts tell an entirely separate story. Mulkheir Mint Yarba, after a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert, returned home to find her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors in the smoldering heat to die. The master, who had raped Moulkheir and conceived the child, told her she would work faster without the infant on her back. When Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial, her master said: “Her soul is a dog’s soul. Get back to work.”

The issue of slavery is so sensitive in Mauritania that the journalists had to conduct most of their interviews in secret, often in the middle of the night and in covert locations. The only other option afforded them was to conduct the interviews in the presence of a government minder, who was assigned to their group by the Ministry of Communications to ensure the topic was not mentioned. The official reason for entering the country was to report on the science of locust swarms; if they were caught talking with an escaped slave like Moulkheir, the journalists could have been arrested or thrown out of the country without their notebooks and footage. That point was made crystal clear in a meeting with the national director of audiovisual communications, Mohamed Yahya Ould Haye, who told them that journalists who attempted to report on such topics were either jailed or ejected from the country. More important, getting caught talking about slavery could have put their sources at risk. Anti-slavery activists report having been arrested and tortured for their work.

The Practice

Slave masters in Mauritania exercise full ownership over their slaves. They can send them away at will, and it is common for a master to give away a young slave as a wedding present, a practice that tears families apart; Moulkheir never knew her mother and barely knew her father. Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Unlike most countries, slaves in Mauritania are not bought and sold, merely given as gifts and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, as well. For example, all of Moulkheir’s children were born into slavery and all were the result of rape by her master.

Many of the workers in the villages exist in the continuum between slavery and freedom. Some are beaten while some aren’t. Some are held captive under threat of violence. Others, like Moulkheir once was, are chained by more complicated means, in which they are tricked into believing that their darker skin makes them less than human and their rightful place is to serve light-skinned masters. Some have escaped and live in fear they’ll be found and returned to the families that own them while others return voluntarily, unable to survive without assistance.

However, because slavery is so common in Mauritania, the experience of being a slave is remarkably varied. As Kevin Bales, president of the group Free the Slaves explains, “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” he said when asked about how slaves are usually treated in Mauritania. “The answer is all of the above.” For example, some masters who no longer need the assistance of a slave send them away to slave-only villages in the countryside, where they check on them occasionally or employ informants who make sure the slaves tend to the land a don’t leave it. Fences that surround these circular villages are often made of long twigs, stuck vertically into the ground so that they look like the horns of enormous bulls submerged in the sand. Nothing ties these skeletal posts together and nothing stops people from running, but they rarely do.

Ethnic Groups

Within Mauritania, there are four ethnic groups that determine the overall standing within the community, the first of which are the White Moors, who are the elite class in Mauritania and control more wealth than any other group. They consist of lighter-skinned Berber people who speak Arabic and have traditionally owned slaves. The second ethnicity group is the Black Moors, a darker-skinned people who historically have been enslaved by the White Moors. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, the Black Moors have adopted many aspects of the Arab culture of their master and many speak Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect. Mauritania’s other darker-skinned people, who make up the third group, come from several ethnic groups, including the Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof. Such groups can be found in Senegal, which shares Mauritania’s southern border. They look similar to Black Moors, but never were enslaved and differ in terms of culture and language. The Haratine are the fourth group, the word literally meaning “freed slaves”. However it can be used to describe people who are in slavery or who belong to the former slave class of Black Moors. Many of them exist somewhere on the spectrum between slavery and freedom and are the target of class- and race-based discrimination.

Why Does Slavery Still Exist

Like many others, you are probably wondering why slavery has continued in Mauritania long after it was abolished elsewhere? There are many factors that contribute to the complex situation. Here are a few:

Politics Geography Religion Racism Education
According to CNN journalists, Mauritania’s government has done little to combat slavery and in interviews denied that the practice exists. Mauritania is an expansive and largely empty country within the Sahara Desert, a characteristic which makes it difficult to enforce any laws, including those against slavery. 


Local Islamic leaders, called imams, historically have spoken in favor of slavery. They make people believe that going to paradise depends on their submission. Slavery in Mauritania is not entirely based on race, but lighter-skinned people historically have owned people with darker skin. Consequently, Mauritanians live by a rigid caste system. However, racism does run rampant in the country. Many slaves in Mauritania do not understand that they are enslaved; they have been “brainwashed” to believe it is their place in the world to work as slaves, without pay, and without rights to their children.

History of Slavery in Mauritania

Circa 200 to 1900s 1905 1948 1961 1980 – 1981 1995 2005
According to Kevin Bales, CEO of Free the Slaves, “You can trace this back for 2,000 years.” Arab slave traders in the region that would become Mauritania capture darker-skinned people from sub-Saharan Africa and force them to work without pay. 

The colonial French administration declares an end to slavery in Mauritania, however, the abolition never takes hold. 

The United Nations adopts The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which abolishes slavery internationally After gaining independence from France the year before, Mauritania adopts a new constitution abolishing slavery, however, the effort has little impact, according to written accounts. 

Mauritania’s government abolishes slavery and declares that it no longer exists, however, slavery still runs rampant. 

A former slave and a former slave owner start an anti-slavery organization called SOS Slaves. 

Mauritania passes a law criminalizing slavery. It allows for a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. To date, only one legal case against a slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.

Psychological Consequences and Needs of Human Trafficking Victims

Obviously, human trafficking produces critical consequences in regards to the safety, welfare, and basic human rights of the victims, who are forced to live in the conditions of physical and mental imprisonment. Numerous mechanisms are used during the exploitation phase, commonly involving: repayment obligations; isolation – confiscation of identification documents; use of violence and intimidation; psychological imprisonment and torture. Victims are often beaten, raped, limited in movement, denied food or water, tortured or drugged, in order to provide absolute obedience. These methods may be a form of punishment for disobedience, but may also serve as prevention to warn the victims of the potential repercussions in case of breaching the established rules of their enslavement.

Consequently, human trafficking victims suffer from chronic, long-term trauma. Traumatic events signify a significant threat to life or physical integrity. Most often, human response to danger causes increased blood flow of adrenalin, initiating a state of alert, after which individuals in such a crisis may choose to fight or flight, exhibiting strong emotions, such as fear or anger that can either mobilize or paralyze them. Normal human reactions to abnormal and traumatic events, like human trafficking, involve:

  1. Physical reactions: headache and stomach pain; sudden sweating and heart disturbance; changes in sleep and appetite weakened immune system; alcohol or drug misuse;
  2. Psychological reactions: shock and fear; disorientation and confusion; oversensitivity and distress; rumination of trauma; nightmares and flashbacks; minimization of the experience; isolation and detachment; problems with trust and/or feelings of betrayal; feelings of helplessness, panic and loss of control; decreased interest for daily activities; lack of sense of order or justice in the world; and fear of the future.

The intensity of the victim’s reaction depends on the experienced trauma and emotional pain, and is often combined with maltreatment and abuse during childhood, which represents an important domain of clinical consequences caused by enslavement and sexual abuse.

Psychological Status of Human Trafficking Victims

Victims of human trafficking assisted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Kosovo as a part of the Program Against Human Trafficking (Counter Trafficking – CT Program) exhibited the following reactions as consequences of trauma during psychological counseling while in the shelter:

  1. Acute stress reaction;
  2. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): flashbacks, nightmares appearing on a base of ’numbness’, disregard of environment, emotional flatness, isolation from others, anhedonia;
  3. Depression;
  4. Adjustment disorder: difficulties to adjust and function regularly, overcome daily problems and plan ahead;
  5. Dissociation and self-harm: split consciousness is an instinctive response of the victims to allow themselves to avoid painful and unwanted memories; actions may include: heavy cuts, extinguishing cigarettes on skin, self-hitting, abuse of various sedatives or substances.

Needs of Human Trafficking Victims

In order for the circle of violence and exploitation to end, victims must be identified and subsequently re-socialized/re-integrated through an institutionalized support system. Historically, prosecution-oriented approaches have been used; however, more and more organizations have begun to adopt a victim-oriented approach that views human trafficking primarily as an issue of human rights, consequently making it a procedural issue. Victim-oriented approaches entail the development of a program scheme and performance of specific activities in each individual case of support. Comprehensive programs that utilize process-orientation (emotional healing and overcoming trauma), effect-orientation (emotional stabilization and social inclusion), as well as the change of policies and measures-orientation (upgrading victims protection framework) have similarly been adapted in certain cases to help the victims of human trafficking.

According to the literature, the diversified needs of human trafficking victims may be satisfied only through coordinated actions of state institutions, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations. Once freed, victims require all the basic human needs, i.e. housing, food, clothing, materials for personal hygiene, etc. Furthermore, victims often need medical assistance for acute health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug addiction. Parallel to these needs is the need for psychological support, which is essential to the full recovery of the victim.

Usually, legal aid through regulating civil status of the victim, provision of all pertinent documentation and adequate security measures is needed for access to health and social support, as well as administrative and court proceedings, where victims may appear as witnesses. In addition to all of the above, the need for education and employment is paramount in order for substantial re-integration of the victim. Some victims may even have specific personal needs to re-establish contact with family, whether the relationship is interpersonal or intimate. These needs can be satisfied through comprehensive and institutionalized programs including: detection identification, rehabilitation, short-term re-integration, and sustainable social inclusion.

The Whistleblower

“Those girls are whores of war. It Happens.”

I decided to continue my previous post on human trafficking in the media by watching a new blockbuster release on the issue called The Whistleblower, staring Rachel Weisz. The film is centered on Bolkovac (Weisz), a mother of three who, in 1999, takes an $85,000 contract with DynCorp (Democra Services in the film), a U.S.-paid contractor that was recruiting peacekeepers for the U.N. Bolkovac would spend 22 months in Bosnia, heading the U.N.’s gender affairs unit there, where she began to uncover a vast underground sex trade. The film focuses on two Ukranian teens, Raya and Luba, who are lured into slavery by promises of a hotel job. Bolkovac’s character soon discovers dozens more women who are raped and brutalized, forced to work off their “debt” in grimy sex clubs where they are chained and sold. Local police, U.N. staff and Bolkovac’s U.S. colleagues are among the profiteers and patrons.

However, Bolkovac soon learns she has little recourse, and that nobody, least of all the world’s great humanitarian organization, is willing to take on a scandal. When she pushes for a formal investigation into the trafficking, she is reassigned from her post. When she questions her colleagues’ diplomatic immunity (peacekeepers cannot be prosecuted for crimes committed overseas) she is demoted. Fed up, she ultimately sends an email detailing the hypocrisy up the chain of command, which is more than 50 people, and is fired. DynCorp, which remains one of the State Department’s main contractors overseas, claims she has committed payroll fraud.

After Kathryn discovers Raya’s body, who she promised to return to her mother, she refuses to stop the investigation, despite the fact that she has been fired. She and a friend within the U.N. manage to procure evidence of an official admitting to the scandal and she brings it to the BBC. In the ending credits, the film states that following Kathryn’s departure from the U.N., a number of peacekeepers were sent home, though non-faced criminal charges because of immunity laws. In the film, Weisz breaks into the U.N. to retrieve her documents. With the help of one particular ally, she turns them over to the press; the film stops there.

The Real Kathryn Bolkovac

For Bolkovac, the aftermath involved a prolonged lawsuit against DynCorp (which she ultimately won), but little closure. She did take her story to the press, and she has written a book (also called The Whistleblower) about her experience. Yet she still does not know who was behind her termination, or to what extent the crimes were covered up. “The anger comes and goes,” states Bolkovac. “Sure, I won my lawsuit, but I never got any real answers.”

At least two of the men involved in the trafficking at DynCorp, Bolkovac says, have been promoted to upper management, while she has been forced out of the policing field entirely. Now married and living in The Netherlands (her husband, whom she met in Bosnia, is portrayed in the film by Nokolaj Lie Kaas), Bolkovac works a desk job, as a project manager for an international auctioneering firm. She has tried to obtain international contract work, but it is a small community: she is infamous. Similarly, despite many interviews, she has not been able to get her foot in at a humanitarian organization, either.

Pop Culture Used to Combat Human Trafficking

The United States

Although experts estimate there are more slaves today than at any other point in history, more and more outlets for combating human trafficking are emerging from the woodwork as popular TV shows and blockbuster hit movies are picking up where most news crews and reporting media leave off. For example, USA’s hit TV show, NCIS, features an episode that aired in November of 2006 ( season 4, episode 8 ) in which a case involving a double homicide involving a U.S. marine and a strangled call girl leads the team to a human trafficking ring based in Washington D.C. that kidnaps young girls from rural China and forces them into prostitution using massage parlors as a front. Sound familiar? A similar theme can be seen in numerous Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes, one of which depicted a case involving the gruesome murder of a young boy that leads Detectives Benson and Stabler to uncover a “travel agency” that specializes in the trafficking and forced prostitution of young boys. The episode was even given spotlight attention in a news brief of the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. In addition, somewhat recent movie titles such as Taken, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Slumdog Millionaire have begun to shed light on the issue of human trafficking.

Social magazines have also been taking a stand against human trafficking. For example, Glamor Magazine issued a story in August 2006 titled “Global Diary: Cambodia” in which one of their columnists, Mariane Pearl ventured to the capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, to meet Somaly Mam, a former sex-slave and current activist who has made it her personal mission to help girls escape human trafficking and forced prostitution. Her group, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, also known as AFESIP (its acronym in French), has 155 social workers in Cambodia and the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Somaly says the organization has saved 3,000 girls since its founding in 1996. Below is a picture of her at an awards ceremony.

South America

Furthermore, other countries are following suit in tailoring their entertainment media to mirror surrounding political and social issues. For example, a Spanish TV series titled, “Vidas Robadas” (Stolen Lives) has helped to raise awareness on trafficking in women in Argentina. The soap opera has proved itself an effective medium for portraying social problems in Latin America, especially for one that has become immensely prevalent in Argentina by addressing an issue on which the news broadcasts had, in 2008, remained silent: the disappearance of women for commercial sexual exploitation. After the first episode aired, the station broadcast “Humanos en el camino” (Humans on the Road), a program led by Gonzalo Valenzuela show-casing real instances of women who had fallen victim to networks trafficking in persons in Argentina. Audience monitoring indicated that most viewers stayed with the channel and did not switch programs.

Back in 2008, “Vidas Robadas” was watched by an estimated two million viewers every night during the first week, proving that entertainment television can be an innovative and effective way of spreading the issue awareness within a community. As Marta Fontela, a lawyer with the Women’s Association for Work and Studies (ATEM) told IPS, “the soap opera is very important because it creates awareness and raises the profile of the problem. My only concern is that it might get stuck on the cases of kidnapped girls, when in fact those who weren’t forced to the same degree are also victims if they fall into the hands of a network”.

The story begins with the kidnapping of a young girl from a low-income family after she falls into the hands of a human trafficking network and is consequently forced into prostitution. The antagonist of the series is the head of the trafficking ring and the complicity between state and society covering up the crime is a major recurring theme within the show. Soledad Silveyra, an actress who plays the mother of the kidnapped girl, met several times with Susana Trimarco, the mother of Marita Verón, a young woman abducted in 2002 in the province of Tucumán and who is presumed to have been sold to a brothel. While Verón is still missing, her mother’s search has led to the discovery and freeing of hundreds of women from prostitution.

Similarly, human trafficking has already been the subject of popular television series in Brazil and Columbia. However, the real stories of the girls kidnapped in Argentina go above and beyond the fictional plots depicted on T.V. For instance, in 2004, after 26 year-old Andrea López disappeared, officials arrested and sentenced to prison the father of one of her three children and then partner, Víctor Purreta, for forcing López to work as a prostitute once it was discovered that he owned two brothels in Buenos Aires. However, after his release, he denied any knowledge of her whereabouts. López’s mother, Julia Ferreira, told IPS that while she agonizes over the soap opera (“Vidas Robadas”), she hopes that discussing the problem publically will help raise awareness of what is happening and foster compassion for those in trouble so that people will come forward with information that can help find the girls.

“Because of shame or ignorance, I never asked for help, but now I think that if I had done so when my daughter was beaten by her husband, perhaps she would not have disappeared,” she said. Now she only has vague clues suggesting her daughter might once have been in a brothel in the province of Córdoba, but no solid evidence. The only witness alleged to have seen Andrea López in one of Puerrta’s brothels was later found hanged with a gag in his mouth, the victim of a suspected mafia killing for which no one has been charged.


In 2008 at the capital of Nepal, speaking at a program organized by Rights of Individual for Social Empowerment (RISE) in association with United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), Gary Lewis, who is the representative of UNODC in South Asia, asked media persons and artists to join hands in global efforts to curb human trafficking. Like many other global issue activists, he believed that voices of people that are instantly recognizable by all would be greatly helpful in putting an end to human trafficking. He also mentioned the intiatives taken by the government in Nepal including ratification of anti-human trafficking protocol to curb the issue.

Babita Basnet, president Sancharika Samuha, said a large number of girls in the country are forced to lead a hellish life after being trafficked. Actress Sanchita Luitel said concerted effort from all stakeholders was essential to curb this crime against humanity. She said gender disparity and illiteracy among rural folks was fueling the problem in Nepal. Punya Prasad Neupane, secretary at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, said media could play the role of facilitator and be a means to create awareness among people.

In 2007, actress Lucy Liu presented Traffic: An MTV EXIT Special, a documentary on human trafficking that premieres in Singapore on November 28, 2007. The documentary is aimed at raising awareness and increasing prevention of human trafficking in Asia Pacific. The program is the lead feature of the MTV EXIT campaign across Asia and the Pacific, an expansion of the successful MTV EXIT European campaign that launched in Europe in 2004. MTV EXIT television programming is produced rights-free and free of charge for all broadcasters and organizations.

Lucy Liu joins other Asian celebrities, including Korea’s pop icon Rain, Thailand’s Tata Young, Greater China’s Karen Mok, and Bollywood star and former Miss Universe Lara Dutta, to raise awareness about this issue. A number of different language versions of the documentary have been produced, including English, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese, among others. MTV is also working closely with broadcasters in other territories to produce more language versions with local celebrities.

The three-part miniseries tells the stories of real people who unknowingly became part of the trafficking chain, including Anna, who was trafficked from the Philippines and forced into prostitution; Eka, an Indonesian woman trafficked into forced domestic servitude and a life of slavery; and Min Aung from Burma, who was trafficked to Thailand and imprisoned for two years in a factory. Their stories are told alongside other people in the trafficking chain, including a trafficker from the Philippines who has been forcing girls into prostitution for over 20 years and a woman who runs a shelter in Singapore for victims of trafficking and other abuses. The documentary also provides information on how individuals can protect themselves against trafficking, as well as what people can do to help end exploitation and trafficking.

Identifying a Victim of Human Trafficking

As explained in my previous blog post, appreciating the magnitude of the issue. However, in addition, people must also be able to identify the victim in common trafficking situations. For example, the picture below depicts a Western man negotiating for a young Thai girl who clutches to the arm of her trafficker. After settling on a price, the man left with the girl and the trafficker left with her payment.

In 1999, a teenage girl was taken from a Haitian orphanage and smuggled into Miami using phony documentation, after which she was forced to work as a domestic servant for up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. She was never paid, not allowed to go to school, occasionally beaten, and subjected to other instances of inhumane treatment. After suffering for nearly six years, she managed to escape in 2005. Fortunately, in March of 2008, justice was finally served when three of her captors were convicted in the case.

Kim, a Cambodian native, lived in a thatch-roofed hut with her family until her father died, after which her mother was forced to commute to the Thai border to find work at the market. However, with little income, she was unable to pay school fees for her children. One day, Kim’s sister lured her on a trip to a neighboring town, where she was sold to a massage parlor to pay off a gambling debt. The son of the massage parlor owner offered to “break her in.” Afterwards, Kim was forced to watch sex tapes and other girls taking in clients to learn the business.

These are just two of hundreds of heart-breaking human trafficking cases the FBI investigates each year, in conjunction with local, state, and federal partners such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. FBI Legal Attachés stationed in embassies around the world also support their investigations that have an international nexus—which many do—by coordinating with global partners.

But how does one identify a victim of human trafficking? Below is a list of indicators for human trafficking victims:

General Indicators

  • People who live on or near work premises
  • Individuals with restricted or controlled communication and transportation
  • Persons frequently moved by traffickers
  • A living space with a large number of occupants
  • People lacking private space, personal possessions, or financial records
  • Someone with limited knowledge about how to get around in a community

Physical Indicators

  • Injuries from beatings or weapons
  • Signs of torture (e.g., cigarette burns)
  • Brands or scarring, indicating ownership
  • Signs of malnourishment

Financial/Legal Indicators

  • Someone else has possession of an individual’s legal/travel documents
  • Existing debt issues
  • One attorney claiming to represent multiple illegal aliens detained at different locations
  • Third party who insists on interpreting. Did the victim sign a contract?

Brothel Indicators

  • Large amounts of cash and condoms
  • Customer logbook or receipt book (“trick book”)
  • Sparse rooms
  • Men come and go frequently

Such instances of modern-day slavery occur more often than many people might think. And, as numerously stated, it is not just an international or a national problem. It is also a local one. It is big business, and it involves a lot of perpetrators and victims. It is vital that law enforcement agencies at all levels remain alert to this issue and address it vigilantly. Even local officers must understand the problem and know how to recognize it in their jurisdictions. Coordinated and aggressive efforts from all law enforcement organizations can put an end to these perpetrators’ operations and free the victims.

However, steps can also be taken by ordinary citizens to help free victims and ensure they are able to live full and meaningful lives despite the horrors they have endured. There are a number of anti-human trafficking non-profit organizations that seek to raise awareness and aid victims, only a few of which are love146, the Polaris Project, and Not For Sale Campaign. All of these organizations take donations to help victims of human trafficking across the globe and set up housing and scholarship programs that help those individuals to rebuild their lives. Donations can be made in a variety of ways, the most common of which are through a cash donation or through the purchase of a T-shirt.


America: Home of the Free

Human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery, according to the FBI. As mentioned in my earlier blog post, estimates place the number of its domestic and international victims in the millions, mostly females and children enslaved in the commercial sex industry for little or no money. While the terms human trafficking and sex slavery usually conjure up images of young girls beaten and abused in faraway places, such as Eastern Europe, Asia, or Africa, human trafficking and sex slavery happen locally in cities and towns, both large and small, throughout the United States, right in our very backyards. Cases of human trafficking have been reported in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and some U.S. territories.

Appreciating the magnitude of the problem requires first understanding what the issue is and what it is not. As defined under U.S. federal law, victims of human trafficking include children involved in the sex trade, adults age 18 or over who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts, and anyone forced into different forms of labor or services, such as domestic workers held in a home or farm-workers forced to labor against their will. Victims of human trafficking can be male, female, or transgender; children or adults; U.S. citizens or foreign nationals.

In 2005, the United States Department of Justice estimated that there are 100,000 to 150,000 sex slaves in the U.S. since 2001. Thousands of U.S. men, women, and children are trafficked to and within the United States for the purpose of sexual and/or labor exploitation. In 2009, a University of Pennsylvania study estimated nearly 300,000 American children and adolescents were at risk of being sexually exploited through the commercial sex trade, most of them runaways or social “throwaways”. In other words, they target those who are most emotionally, physically, and mentally vulnerable.

Trafficked children are shuttled on a circuit between U.S. cities to avoid detection in the sex trade, after which pimps put them on the street and force them to perform sex acts with an average of 8 to 10 men a night. The lifespan for a trafficked child after entering “the life” is around 7 years before they are killed or die from AIDS. The average age a child becomes a prostitute in the U.S. is 13 years old; however, there girls who are as young as 5 or 6 years old who are being forced into prostitution by their pimps. Thus, while most American children and teens are going to school, playing sports, and enjoying time spent with family and friends, others are being forced to have sex with an average of 50 men per week; the only future they have to look forward to is one filled with rape, drugs, and, more often than not, death at the hands of either an anonymous John or their pimp.

Sex traffickers generally target children and adolescents due to their vulnerability and gullibility, as well as for the marketing demand for younger “products”. Those who recruit minors into prostitution, i.e., pimps, typically target those who come from broken/abusive households or foster families. Often, they become involved in prostitution to support themselves financially or to get the things they feel they need or want, like drugs. Other young people are recruited into prostitution through forced abduction, pressure from parents, or through deceptive agreements between parents and traffickers. Traffickers have been reported targeting their minor victims though telephone chat-lines, clubs, on the street, through friends, and at mall, as well as using other girls at schools and after-school programs. Once these children become involved in prostitution, they often are forced to travel far from their homes and, as a result, are isolated from their friends and family. Few children in this situation can develop new relationships with peers or adults other than the person victimizing them. The lifestyle of such youths revolves around violence, forced drug use, and constant threats.

Among American children and teens living on the streets, involvement in commercial sex activity is a problem of epidemic proportion. Many girls living on the street engage in formal prostitution, and some become tangled in nationwide organized crime networks where they are trafficked nationally. Criminal networks transport these children around the U.S. by a variety of means, i.e., cars, buses, vans, trucks, or planes, and often provide them counterfeit identification to use in the event of arrest.

Many states have become internationally known hubs for the sex trade. For instance, Portland, Oregon has become the sex trafficking capital of America. However, Atlanta, Houston, Toledo, New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Los Angeles are all in close competitors. In fact, sex trafficking is rife in any major city. For example, between June and August of 2011, Virginia received a total of 5,860 calls reporting possible instances of human trafficking, 13 of which came from Richmond. One call even reported an instance of possible human trafficking right here in Farmville. According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.


Not For Sale

According to the Not For Sale Campaign, there are an estimated 30 million slaves in the world today, more than any other point in human history. Below is a video from their website that does a good job of describing what they are about and how the founder of the campaign, David Batstone, got started. On the site, I came across an entry called Louis’ Story, which describes the efforts of one abolitionist who happens to live in my hometown of Williamsburg, VA. While visiting his brother in Richmond, VA for Thanksgiving, Louis met a young girl from Cameroon that his brother was temporarily housing while she was fleeing captivity. To his astonishment, rather than telling of political troubles in her war-torn home, the teenager detailed her enslavement in the home of a wealthy family in the Richmond area.

Her “masters” had promised her parents in Cameroon that the 14 year-old would receive an American education in exchange for work in their home. Furthermore, they offered to send her wages back to Cameroon on a regular basis. The couple then used their own daughter’s passport, fabricated with a photo of their new “tenant”, to bring the girl into the United States. Once in Virginia, the slaveholders forced her to work at domestic chores all day, starting at dawn and ending at dusk. She never attended school, nor was she allowed to leave the house unless accompanied by the husband or the wife. Moreover, the husband sexually abused her on numerous occasions. They also prohibited her from having any communication with her family back in Africa, though they assured her that they were sending them regular payments.

Not For Sale Campaign attempts to create the tools that engage businesses, government and grassroots movements in order to incubate and grow social enterprises to benefit enslaved and vulnerable communities. The Not For Sale Community Abolitionist Network is a grassroots campaign comprised of volunteers and abolitionist leaders who work with local communities to raise awareness and change community actions and attitudes about human trafficking and modern day slavery.