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While trafficking is particularly prevalent in countries with widespread poverty, it is also surprisingly rampant in the developed world.

U hosts conference to combat child trafficking

By Andi McDaniel

May 1, 2006

Child sex trafficking has all of the ingredients of a nightmare: putrid living conditions, torturous physical abuse, and a penetrating sense of powerlessness-like you're screaming in a room full of people and no one seems to hear. And yet, it often begins as the promise of a dream fulfilled-a better life in the United States, a job at a beauty salon in Thailand, or an escape from extreme poverty in Moldova.

Each year, more than 1.2 million young boys and girls are trafficked around the world for the purposes of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation. The issue goes beyond national boundaries, affects both developed and developing countries, and relies on an international underground network of people either participating or willing to look the other way.

"It's not like it's just a question of trafficking," Halldorsdottir explains, "as though if we outlaw it, it's not going to be a problem. It's a question of poverty, it's a question of inequality... it's a question of certain cultural ideas about women and sex. It's not something that can easily be addressed."

While eradicating this problem is a daunting task, a growing number of initiatives continue to take it on. At the recent conference "United Front for Children: Global Efforts to Combat Sexual Trafficking in Travel and Tourism," international anti-trafficking leaders from government, academia, NGOs, and the tourism industry convened to share success stories and forge new collaborations.

Speakers included Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF; Ambassador John Miller of the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking; and leaders of anti-trafficking efforts in Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Taiwan. The conference--widely attended by faculty, students, and community members--is one of a variety of innovative efforts around the U to address child trafficking.

"United Front for Children" stressed cross-sector collaboration, which made the University the ideal host, according to Barbara Frey, director of the University's Human Rights Program, which sponsored the event. Organizing the conference allowed the University to "not only contribute to substantive expertise, but also to build relationships that lead to productive efforts," Frey says.

A key connection addressed at the conference was that of the tourism industry to the anti-trafficking movement. Because international tourists often constitute the "demand" side of the trafficking equation- sometimes engaging in "sex tourism," where the specific nature of a trip is sexual exploitation--the tourism industry is in a precarious, but valuable position.

Cynthia Messer, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center, has written curricula for youth and tourism professionals on the issue through the World Tourism Organization (WTO). She says that the industry has made remarkable strides in recent years. "The global tourism industry...is really clear in understanding that they are not the cause of this, but they are proactively being partners in trying to stop it." One of the industry's most notable achievements is the introduction of the "Code of Conduct," a voluntary commitment to awareness-raising efforts such as training employees to recognize trafficking victims and introducing a clause in contracts with suppliers that repudiates sexual exploitation.

Currently, at least 241 companies in 20 countries have signed onto the code, with Carlson Companies as the first in North America. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the company's CEO (and a member of the Board of Overseers of the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management), has become an ardent advocate for anti-trafficking efforts. In her closing remarks at the conference, Nelson asserted that the tourism industry has both "the obligation and the leverage" to address the issue of child trafficking. "Once you are made aware of this issue, you can never be free of it," Nelson says.

Her words certainly apply to undergraduate students Vanna Chan and Berglind Halldorsdottir, who were centrally involved in planning the conference. The two recently founded the organization Students Against Human Trafficking in response to a growing interest among students in becoming involved with the issue. Both students, in separate semesters, were influenced by their experiences in Frey's Human Rights Internship class, which supplements service-learning experiences in local NGOs with lessons about their history, function, formation, and operation.

This summer, Chan will intern in Cambodia with ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), one of the leading organizations in combating trafficking. "I've watched so many documentaries on [trafficking of children...," Chan says, "and just to see those children being forced into this--they're so young; they have no idea that what's being done to them is wrong." Chan feels a sense of duty to act on their behalf. "They don't have a voice, they're silenced, they're hidden in this dark world," she says. "I feel a responsibility to have their voices heard."

Halldorsdottir, who also works as a program assistant for the Human Rights Program, says that the more she's learned about the issue of trafficking, the more she's recognized its complexity. "It's not like it's just a question of trafficking," she explains, "as though if we outlaw it, it's not going to be a problem. It's a question of poverty, it's a question of inequality... it's a question of certain cultural ideas about women and sex. It's not something that can easily be addressed."

Frey believes the pervasiveness of the issue should make it a priority throughout the human rights movement. "There's this tendency to break off the sexual exploitation part from broader child protection issues within the human rights movement," she says. "But it's all connected. Why are kids vulnerable? Why do they become vulnerable to sexual exploitation? Because they're not offered a chance to go to school, their families don't have the financial wherewithal to support them, and girls, especially from a lower caste...are not valued in their societies."

These underlying societal attitudes have led to a focus on education, rather than just enforcement. The government of Benin, for instance, has begun educating taxi drivers about trafficking, so they can report possible traffickers. Brazil, meanwhile, has launched a national campaign called "Brazil: Love it and protect it," which promotes respect for the country's racial and ethnic diversity, as a way of counteracting trafficking that preys on cultural minorities.

While trafficking is particularly prevalent in countries where poverty is widespread, it is also surprisingly rampant in the developed world. "It's hard for people to accept that there are some really grave human rights violations happening right here in our country," says Chan. In fact, "Minnesota has a reputation not only for being a destination but also a source [for victims]." There have been a number of documented cases of young girls in rural areas of Minnesota trafficked to other cities such as Las Vegas. However, a comprehensive assessment of trafficking's presence in the United States, or anywhere else, is hard to come by. There's a pervasive lack of research into both the problem and the success of various initiatives designed to address it.

This research gap was one of the items on the agenda in the second day of the conference--a series of "expert meetings" that allowed for intimate dialogue between the many sectors present. The meetings, says Frey, included "some really honest assessments of where the gaps are, what the lack of resources is, the difficulty in framing the issue, the difficulty in bringing corporate players to the table, and difficulty with media issues." In response, the various players committed to practical actions they could undertake in each of their sectors. "Our goal was to push it towards the concrete," says Frey.

The conference produced a stockpile of online resources compiled by student organizers, available at trafficking resources. The site includes links to the Code of Conduct, downloadable media files, statistics, information about human rights laws, and numerous reports and articles on the issue. To find out more about the organization Students Against Human Trafficking, e-mail saht@umn.edu.