Midyear Meeting

Breaking the cycle of violence against women is a key to ending human trafficking, activists say


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Norma Ramos
Photo by Kathy Anderson

There’s an impressive arsenal of legislation initiatives to combat human trafficking in the United States. But experts say eradication of the practice is meeting with a stubborn resistance, an issue that’s been thwarting efforts for more than 20 years.

What’s the hurdle?

The legal system and society have failed to come to terms with a pervasive epidemic of violence against women.

Norma Ramos, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, asserted as much as she decried the lack of political will to recognize and deal with violence against women, which fuels both the sex trade and labor trafficking.

“Until we make an end of violence against women a priority, we won’t solve this problem,” said Ramos, who spoke Friday at an ABA Midyear Meeting program sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division. “The legal system has got to make a priority of ending the immunity and impunity for men who engage in violence against women.”

Without efforts to deal effectively with that problem, suggest Ramos, trafficking in women and girls continues to be a lucrative criminal activity that feeds a seemingly insatiable market. “There is an endless supply of men who want to buy women for sex,” Ramos said. “What is happening to male sexuality? If a man desires certain activity, and his wife says no, or his girlfriend says no, then the man will find someone who can’t say no.” When it comes to prostitution, she said, “We’ve been arresting the wrong people. We’ve been arresting the victims.”

Ramos blamed the political community for not doing enough to address these problems, and in some cases for even being part of the cause. As an example, she said, Elliott Spitzer helped gain passage of the first state law against human trafficking when he was governor of New York “as he was buying women for sex.” Spitzer later resigned amid allegations of his use of prostitutes.

There is some good news in the fight against human trafficking, said Mary C. Ellison, another panelist. Every state now has a statute that makes sex trafficking and labor trafficking an offense, she said. Moreover, an executive order issued last fall by President Barack Obama and legislation recently passed by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act will require government contractors to show that they are not engaged in activities that contribute to labor trafficking. Together, those measures “will change the face of government procurement, really, around the world,” said Ellison, who is director of policy for the D.C.-based Polaris Project, which combats human trafficking.

But more efforts are needed to enforce those and other laws, and more resources must be committed to fighting human trafficking, Ellison said. She noted that only $161 million has been earmarked by Congress in the current budget for anti-human trafficking programs.

Human trafficking is a policy priority for ABA President Laurel G. Bellows of Chicago. In remarks opening the program, Bellows said, “This is no joking matter. We have slaves in this country, and more than a hundred thousand of them are U.S. citizens.”

At another Midyear Meeting program on Friday sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, speakers endorsed safe harbor laws that treat youths involved in commercial sexual exploitation as victims needing social services rather than juvenile delinquents.

Laws in at least eight states decriminalize prostitution for anyone under a specific age, usually 16 or 18. Texas does not have a law on the books, but a 2010 state supreme court opinion (PDF) found that children younger than 14 could not be prosecuted for prostitution because they can’t consent to sex as a matter of law. Children ages 14 to 17 can assert that they are trafficking victims as an affirmative defense to a charge of prostitution as a result of the decision.

Even in states with laws on the books, several problems remain, speakers said. Laura Burstein of Mosaic Family Services, which provides support services for abuse and human trafficking victims in Dallas, used New York as an example.

In that state, minors charged with prostitution are diverted from the juvenile justice system only if it’s a first offense, Burstein said. Because of a lack of housing, some minors are held in juvenile detention. And prosecutors are able circumvent the law by charging youths with other crimes such as loitering, obstruction and drug possession.

Richard Hooks Wayman, executive director of Hearth Connection, which provides homeless support services in St. Paul, Minn., told of another problem: finding funding to support social service programs for trafficking victims. He cited a 2000 study to show the extent of the child trafficking problem: It estimates that 240,000 to 340,000 youths are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.

The ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates takes up the issue of human trafficking on Monday. One resolution calls for adoption of laws that bar the prosecution of trafficking victims for crimes that are a direct result of their status.

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