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National NOW Times >> Summer, 2000 >> Article

Worldwide Tragedy: U.S. Not Immune to Sexual Slavery

by Jennifer Wright, Publications Intern

While people may think sex trafficking is not a domestic problem, federal immigration officials say trade in slaves and indentured servants for prostitution and other labor in the United States is tragically common. In November 1999, the CIA completed a report that found that 50,000 women and children from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are lured to this country each year.

"It's thriving. It's very well-organized. It's very lucrative," said Mark Riordan, head of Northern California investigations for the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's a worldwide problem that shows up in every major city (in the United States)."

In the U.S., legislation has been developed that would address the problem of trafficking into this country. A House-approved bill, The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (H.R. 3244), passed the Senate just before the National NOW Times went to press. An analysis, especially of several important defects, will appear in the next issue of the NNT.

Raising Awareness of Sex Trafficking's Horrors

NOW and other human rights organizations are bringing the problem of sex trafficking to the attention of U.S. policy-makers. Millions of women and children around the world are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Traffickers procure their victims in various ways, and the sexual exploitation takes numerous forms.

Some women and girls are abducted; some are deceived by offers of legitimate work in another country; some are sold by their own poverty-stricken parents or are themselves driven by poverty to traffickers who profit from their desperation. Young women and girls, anxious to seek a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes acquiesce. They are then sold by traffickers into prostitution.

Regardless of how they are propelled into the multi-billion dollar industry of sexual exploitation, these women and girls suffer unspeakable human rights violations as commodities in the global trade of human beings.

Traffickers use a variety of methods-from physical force to tranquilizing drugs-to make these women prostitute themselves. Most often, though, traffickers use powerful threats, telling the victims that if they try to run away their families will be harmed or that U.S. authorities will capture, torture and deport them. The women are often subjected to beatings and even forced abortions.

Global Efforts Stumble Over Definition of Trafficking

Since January 1999, 102 countries have been meeting at the United Nations in Vienna to draft a new Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The Convention covers all forms of transnational crime. Its purpose is to define areas of law enforcement cooperation, legal procedures and other measures between countries. As an elaboration of the Convention, an ad hoc committee is working on the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

The core and most contentious part of the Trafficking in Persons Protocol is the definition of trafficking. In Article 2 of the Draft Protocol, there are two competing definitions on trafficking. Option 1, submitted by the U.S., limits "trafficking" to instances of abduction, force, fraud, deception, coercion or other force-like conditions. Option 1 also distinguishes between victims ("trafficked persons") who consent and those who do not.

Various women's rights and other human rights groups warned that not only would this definition fail to protect a substantial number of trafficking victims, but it would also shield many traffickers in the global sex trade from prosecution.

Pam Rajput, chair of Asia Women's Watch, opposes making consent a defense to criminal charges for those who profit from trafficking. Rajput recalls a telling court case: "In India there was a woman who was raped by the police officials and the court said, 'Well she didn't shriek enough to indicate her lack of consent.' So what is consent? This consent is a very, very dangerous kind of notion."

The United States has also submitted a definition of "sexual exploitation" of adults as activity "for which the person does not offer herself." The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and its partners reject this language.

Dianne Post, an attorney in Moscow, Russia, offers a perspective on the suggested definition. She says, "To suggest that someone offers themselves voluntarily to 'sexual servitude' along with prostitution or pornography is completely unacceptable. Would they make that argument about any other group?"

A Second Option Offers Hope

Option 2 was originally submitted by Argentina and has been advocated by the International Human Rights Network (IHRN), a partnership of human rights, feminist and various non-governmental organizations. The approach maintains consent is irrelevant: Trafficking can occur with or without the alleged consent of the victim, and any definition of trafficking must focus on exploitation as the basis of the definition.

The IHRN argues that if governments allow consent as an exemption in sex trafficking, they are contending that some sex trafficking can be redefined as "migration for sex work" or "facilitated migration."

For example, in a 1998 case of trafficking in Canada, 53 Asian women described situations of being sold for approximately $16,000- $25,000 (Canadian), kept in confinement, and then made to work off debts of approximately $40,000 (Canadian) by engaging in 400-500 sex acts each. Because some of the women had agreed to migrate for prostitution and had signed contracts, law enforcement agents concluded that the women "knew exactly what they were getting into," and were reluctant to label these cases of trafficking.

Tentative Agreement

In an effort to come to a consensus on the definition of trafficking, informal plenary sessions have been held by the ad hoc committee on Trafficking in Persons. At the most recent, 9th session in June 2000, Option 2 (the definition submitted by Argentina) had disappeared from the draft protocol and none of the other options contained the phrase "with or without the consent of the victim."

The IHRN urged delegates during the June session to protect all trafficking victims. The current definition includes the essential phrase "irrespective of the consent of the person." This definition confirms the commitments of 72 countries from Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the European Union that ratified the original 1949 Convention; and those 155 that have ratified Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

"The sex industry has huge economic interests in countries such as Holland, Germany and Australia, that have regulated or legalized 'sex work,' brothels and pimping"said NOW Membership Vice President Karen Johnson. "It is not surprising that these countries are demanding a narrowing of the terms currently defining trafficking of persons. But what is the United States' excuse?"

Johnson continues: "In Vienna when the delegation meets as a whole, we must make sure that no distinction is drawn between deserving and undeserving victims. This is a definition that will be persuasive in legislation and treaties on trafficking in the 21st century."

NOW urges concerned organizations and individuals to reject a definition of trafficking based on consent. To sign onto the IHRN's statement of support, send e-mail to: or Individuals should also contact the National Representatives to the Transnational Organized Crime Convention.

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