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She Lives in Shame
Eying the Modern-Day Child Sex Trade and the Lack of Efforts to End It
In the metro-Atlanta area of Georgia, an endless current of cars passes every night. Their drivers are unaware that around them, 500 underage girls are being trafficked into the sex trade every month. This industry, while illegal, is the third largest black market trade in the world and accounts for $32 billion in revenue yearly. For the traffickers of the world, money comes from forcing young girls to trade in their families and childhoods for strangers and endless nights of forced prostitution. There is a monster under the bed after all – or in the case of 1.75 million trafficked girls, in it.
If we do not reexamine cultural values placed on girls and begin to hold foreign governments responsible for their lack of efforts made to impede child sex trafficking, the trade will continue to fester undisturbed. We must promote education regarding all aspects of this seamy industry as well if we truly intend on halting this vile enterprise. Locally as well as globally, we must recognize that every digit represents an individual human being denied the right to their own bodies and, furthermore, their lives.
While child sex trafficking is a topic many of us avoid, whether it be fault to a lack of personal experience or simply unawareness, there is no better way to fully grasp the core of child sex trafficking than by standing in the place of these enslaved girls. This is exactly what a group of artists sought to promote in an exhibit they titled ‘Journey.’ The exhibit contains a facsimile of the bedroom belonging to a sexually enslaved young woman.
Open lipstick tubes and crumpled articles of clothing cover the floor. Against the peeling wallpaper, there’s a disheveled bed with various blood stains and above it, a board with the prices of various sex acts written in felt-tip marker. Suddenly, hydraulics beneath the bed forces the mattress to throb, depicting graphic violence.
For viewers, escaping the devil’s bedroom is as easy as walking through the curtain at the other end, made with hundreds of used condoms strung together. For the girls who find themselves imprisoned in this dimly lit workplace, escape is almost unthinkable. However, the room is not meant to simply repulse viewers; it makes sex trafficking tactile for those of us who have luckily never been humiliated in that bed and as the viewers walk past the mirror with the words ‘Help Me’ scratched on the layer of grime, they leave the room as outraged as they are disturbed, the curtain of condoms swinging gently now behind them. The impact of the exhibit resonates on a deep level within the viewers; what was once a group of people, moderately indifferent to the subject, is now a group of aware and determined individuals.
The room is the portal to a social epiphany; the realization that child sex trafficking does exist and is prevalent. The power of art is a testament to the hopeful idea that perhaps taking the first few steps to ending the intricate child sex trade could be obtained through something as simple as an art exhibit. The idea is hopeful but not farfetched. In fact, it is based on the simple notion that humanity may be good, despite it all. As long as we continue to raise awareness and educate the world, the just end of a seamy industry may be much closer than we think.
A girl is not a commodity. Neither is she a form of entertainment, nor an item to bought and sold. She is a burgeoning young woman - full of hopes, aspirations and a desire, as well as a natural right, to fulfill those dreams. Traffickers, however, see no wrongdoing in handing over young girls to strange men and they feel no pity in making them perform even when they are ill, pregnant, or menstruating. As long as the world continues to shield its eyes, girls will continue to be priced and sold right in our own backyards. The way we perceive girls before and after they have been trafficked is perhaps one of the most corrosive weapons we have to combat the child sex trade but as long as we continue to evoke stigma in these girls, resurrection is nowhere in sight.
Shame is a burning iron, branding enslaved women. Young girls from impoverished families will find themselves under blame for the destitution of their parents. Her parents’ disappointment in her translates into a sense of determination to change the conditions, regardless of the means but her well intentioned sacrifice will make her an undesirable. This is where a disguised trafficker will then brandish a nonexistent job opportunity in a foreign country.
These are the communities in which once an unmarried girl loses her virginity, she is considered defiled, regardless of if she lost it against her will. When it comes to purity, for many cultures, it’s all or nothing. Her family will treat her as the stain to its honor. What difference will it make to them how many men have their turn with her, now her innocence is gone? This inexorable ideal, that she is defined by her virginity, is the noose from which traffickers dangle young girls. Now that her innocence is gone, so is her identity within a respectable society. So begins her harsh indoctrination. She has nothing left – her family has turned its back. Friends and neighbors regard her as a pariah, the only thing she still has is her body and that is being sold for a fixed rate. And for every day that she stays, the chance of her regaining her identity becomes as unobtainable as her virginity. She lives in shame.
This is unquestionably the fatal flaw in the cultural value placed on virginity and young girls. Halting the child sex industry is very much a matter of how we raise the girls of our generation. What we teach them to hold in high regard, and what we don’t. We must instill a sense of worth that goes beyond the condition of their virginity nor are they responsible for upholding their family’s reputation. While innocence is a blessed concept in reference to consenting sex, innocence, is lost eventually. If we define girls by the state of their virginity, aren’t we indirectly saying that the only thing they are qualified for is sex? Until we ourselves learn to accept that purity is not a characterizing trait, how will we ever pass on this message to the daughters of the world?
What good does raising awareness do us if we continue to instill an unprecedented value on purity in the girls of the world? Education means awareness not only for us but for the girls most at risk. It could be her father, her brother, cousin, friend, uncle, neighbor or even a man she has never met. Once he has his turn and she becomes her community’s outcast, saving her will be impossible.
The U.S. State Department’s Advisor on Trafficking stated that “We are not finding victims in the United States because we are not looking for them.” It all goes back to education. There are many reasons we aren’t looking for them -although all are a sorry excuse- but the most important is that people do not know what it really looks like. Mind you, people know what child sex trafficking is but without a human face attached, to everyone, the industry is just a collection of insignificant numbers and meaningless statistics. So strikes the club of ignorance.
How convenient for the world to brand child sex trafficking as prostitution, this way the public does not feel it is their responsibility to take action. Prostitution involves consent and, therefore, the children are perceived as having reached this exploitation through their own doing, when in fact this is the ignorant mindset that has allowed the child sex trade to canker undisrupted. While children are labeled as ‘criminals,’ the real convicts are lurking in the shadows, preying on the most vulnerable kids. It does not take astronomical dollars worth of preventative measures, exorbitant numbers of new educational programs or costly new campaigns for society to open their eyes and recognize that no child would ever volunteer for the repeated ordeal of having their bodies penetrated by fifteen (the going rate) grown men on a nightly basis. We have a name for that: rape.
Imagine not that 1.75 million children are trafficked but rather your own child. Look at them; consider all the hopes you have for them. Consider their aspirations. Now consider those hopes and aspirations pawned in place for a life of coercion, forced sex, a loss of control and dignity. You child is a sex slave. Doesn’t that hurt? Without a doubt, we need a more far-reaching understanding of child sex trafficking.
However, regardless of how we aspire to promote education and raise the social status of young women, our efforts are as vulnerable as these girls if not accompanied by the sharp teeth of stronger legislation. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a key piece of legislation, The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which allows the U.S. to issue an annual report ranking country’s by “tiers” depending on the efforts they have made to help end sex trafficking in their country’s as well as provide aid to victims. The legislation works to humiliate foreign governments sufficiently enough to make them change their attitude towards the problem. While it has gotten many governments to draw up “rescue plans” which include both saving a victim and then providing her with education, housing and counseling for as long as she needs, some countries still remain as illusive on the subject as the industry itself. For example, South Africa is not able to provide aid to children who have been sexually trafficked because the country has yet to define what constitutes as child sex trafficking. We live in societies that create a demand for particularly young girls, to be used as objects of sexual gratification, as well as ones that create a supply of vulnerable young women who can vanish without a trace. And While the United States has made commendable progress, let it be known that the U.S. will spend $32 million more yearly on ending the drug trafficking industry than that of child sex trafficking.
Essentially, child sex trafficking is a rusted gate; its lock corroded shut by rust of unawareness and layers of corroded indifference. Each blind eye allows enough time for another girl to be snatched between the rusted rails. Every belittlement of the plight is another incorruptible layer of grime, allowing the activity behind the blackened gates to blister. Alas, while new laws and strengthened legislation can temporarily break the lock, opening the gate long enough to rescue victims, until the gate is fully unhinged by global awareness, it will inevitably shut again under the force of ignorance.
In the metro-Atlanta area, an endless current of cars passes oblivious to the growing problem. In fact, a few of those cars might be transporting newly captured young girls to be used by grown men until their shelf life expires. But there is still time to put up a red-light, stop the traffic and rescue the girls from those cars and for those who have not yet been pulled into the merciless trade, we can still protect them. Re-abolishing slavery of trafficked children will be attained through expansive educational programs that bring awareness to the industry as well as help reform the status with which girls are identified, as well as encourage foreign governments to promote greater efforts, holding accountable those that are unwilling to comply. With these three things on our agenda, the end of a sordid enterprise will be closer than ever and the monster, finally obliterated.