Thursday, January 10, 2013

Does it even make a difference?

When addressing the issue of human trafficking, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or confused about where to even begin.

With 27 million people in slavery across the world, and with 100,000 to 300,000 number of prostituted children in the U.S. alone, it's easy to file this issue away with the rest of the systematic crimes that plague our world: drug trade, human organ trade, war crimes against humanity -- all too far and broad to address.

What grounds me amidst the changing tides of statistics is the reality of the people these numbers represent. Statistics are helpful and necessary for our finite minds to grasp the enormity of the illicit trade of humans. But they are incomplete and constantly changing. They alone don't compel us to see the humanity of each individual who suffers in bondage during the one life he or she has been granted.

Sometimes, it helps to start with the smaller numbers. According to a research done by Polaris Project on the availability of safe houses specifically for human-trafficking survivors, there are only 519 shelter beds in the U.S. exclusively designated for human trafficking survivors. There are 1,416 additional shelter beds available to human-trafficking survivors that serve this group as well as other populations. That makes a total of about 2,000 shelter beds available to human trafficking survivors. 2,000.

2,000 is a comprehensible number to me. I can imagine a large jar that holds about that many marbles. Or 4 packages of printer paper that add up to 2,000. In days that is 5.5 years; that doesn't seem too long of a period, considering how fast it flew by for me. And to put it into perspective, that's nearly the amount of years that a child may expect to live after being trafficked as a sex slave: 7.

Sometimes, people are surprised to learn that the Monarch of Freedom House has only 8 beds. "Wow, that's small," they said, and I agree, because it's true.

But when there are hundreds of thousands of people being trafficked in the U.S. alone, with only 2,000 beds as alternative options for those who are discovered by anti-trafficking agencies, social workers and law enforcement officers, or for those who manage to escape their perpetrators, the number of beds available at a single shelter, no matter how few, starts to sound like a godsend. That a shelter can provide a single place to rest and rebuild one's life for up to 1.5 years -- that is a miracle for one who never saw a way out.

This week, I read a Las Vegas Review-Journal article that mentioned some inherent problems with tougher penalties for pimps and illicit trade participants (important as they are): "tougher penalties don't always deter criminals, and there might not be enough room for pimps in Nevada's prisons." At an anti-trafficking summit this Wednesday, panelists suggested a commonly overlooked solution: investing in treatment.

Build a place victims can live, a place where they can start anew and come to embrace the survivor within. A place to grow. A place to be. A home.

It's easy to get caught up in numbers. But oh how each individual counts. Where would we be if abolitionists could not see the survivor behind the number 1?

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Read about the shelter for minors opening in 2013 on Freedom House's website.

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