A decade ago, I had never heard of human trafficking. Like most Americans, I could not fathom the concept of exploiting another human being—particularly a child—for forced labor or sex. And yet, modern day slavery is real, with an estimated 21 million victims worldwide. One in four victims is a child, but this figure varies greatly by region, escalating to 68 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Traffickers and recruiters target vulnerable populations, including migrant workers, runaway and homeless youth, oppressed social or cultural groups, internally displaced persons or refugees affected by natural disaster or conflict, victims of physical and sexual abuse, and women and children living in poverty.
Trafficking occurs to satisfy demand for labor and prostitution, but also because it is a high-profit and low-risk way to fund organized crime. Historically, risk was low due to the lack of criminal punishment infrastructure, the lack of will to investigate and prosecute, and the cultural acceptance of such practices. Since the enactment of the United Nations Protocol to Suppress, Prevent, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Against Women and Children in 2003, public awareness has increased and preventative measures have been enacted.
However, attitudes are still slow to change. Here are just a few reasons why:
- General public: In developing countries, many people turn a blind eye to trafficking because it is a culturally acceptable practice. For example, in Kenya it is common knowledge that child labor is used in the tea industry. In developed countries, people tend not to think about supply chain accountability when they purchase clothes, cocoa, and cell phones with batteries that contain coltan from African mines.
- Victims: Trafficked persons are often unaware of their status as victims and believe themselves to be criminals, either as a result of being in the U.S. illegally or by performing illegal acts, such as prostitution. Typically they are fearful of law enforcement.
- Law Enforcement: In transit, victims frequently pass by customs officers and immigration officials without being recognized as victims of human trafficking. Victims can be of any age, sex, or nationality, making them difficult to recognize on sight. Once they have been transported, victims are isolated from the public and do not have access to police protection.
- Prosecutors: Legislation that defines and lays out the penalties for trafficking is relatively new in most countries. Prosecutors are reluctant to charge violators with trafficking charges and instead use charges with which they are familiar: rape, kidnapping, and pandering (the solicitation of customers for prostitution services and recruitment of prostitutes for hire).
Plan International USA implements several projects that directly combat trafficking by raising awareness, engaging in prevention activities, or facilitating access to services and creating safe spaces for victims. Indirectly, virtually all of Plan’s work serves to prevent trafficking. Because recruiters and traffickers target vulnerable populations, our work mitigates the risk of children being recruited into a life of slavery. Here are some of Plan’s current and recently completed projects that address the root causes of trafficking:
Birth registration is the first legal acknowledgement of a child’s existence. When children are not registered, they lack access to health and social services and the justice system. One in three children—230 million under the age of 5—lack birth certificates, and are therefore significantly more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, child labor, early marriage, and human trafficking, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Human traffickers seek out vulnerable populations, including children who might not be missed if their births were never legally registered.
In Nairobi and the Coast region, birth registration among orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) already associated with the project averaged 34 percent. The Nilinde project facilitated a rapid results initiative in select sub-counties to increase the number of children with birth certificates by collaborating with local chiefs and community health volunteers. With the progress made during the first year, 44 percent of OVC now have birth certificates, against a project target of 70 percent.
The Protecting Human Rights (PHR) project works with victims of sexual violence to link them with essential services. The project targets young people to create awareness about gender equality as a way to help reduce domestic violence and human rights abuses such as child marriage, dowry, sexual harassment, trafficking-in-persons, stalking, rape, and child abduction.
One component of the PHR program includes working in schools to build awareness of gender equality at a critical time when gender identities and respect for gender differences among boys and girls are being formed. Plan’s work in schools includes awareness sessions and trainings with students, teachers, and school administrators; training of peer educators; and the creation of sexual harassment prevention committees. It focuses on behavior change of boys and girls to diminish the patriarchal values that result in gender biases and inequality at a very young age, which are often root causes of prostitution and trafficking. PHR’s schools-based program has been implemented and replicated in 186 schools and 40 madrassas, reaching more than 122,598 students.
Nepal: Fighting Against Child Trafficking
In Nepal, the Fighting Against Child Trafficking project created awareness about trafficking risk factors and how to prevent trafficking activities. The project worked to promote government and community accountability in trafficking prevention and created a safe environment at the household and community level for more than 15,000 vulnerable and rescued children.
While many private, religious schools in Senegal offer genuine religious instruction, some are highly exploitative, subjecting young students to forced begging and abuse. Plan International USA, in collaboration with the Senegalese government, national associations, and a local partner, trains and supports local authorities, community-based organizations, and communities in referring child trafficking cases, legal services available to victims, and raising awareness of child trafficking. To date, the project has managed to develop trafficking referral guidelines recognized by the government of Senegal, as well as hold 32 training sessions for more than 1,000 police, court officials, community-based organizations, and health workers, in which participants were trained in identifying trafficking cases and using the referral system. The project has also raised awareness by organizing 54 community forums and 24 radio broadcasts and public service announcements to point out the risks of child trafficking and discuss solutions to fight against it.
A world free of child slavery is a long-term proposition that will require multi-pronged approaches, the success of which are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Plan’s work to promote gender equality across all sectors of its work in education, health, and economic empowerment has an enormous impact in preventing human trafficking and contributes to the SDGs.