In the face of the world’s fastest-growing crime — the enslavement of a million men, women and children every year — Lauran Bethell had some profoundly simple advice for the 800 attendees at Mercer’s recent anti-human trafficking conference in Macon: “Just show up.”
STOP Conference Co-Chair Dr. Andrew Silver, right, addresses the crowd during a ceremony on March 20 honoring heroes of the anti-human trafficking movement in Georgia. Seated, from left to right, are Conference Co-Chair Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan and Mercer University President William D. Underwood.
Bethell, an American Baptist Churches USA global ministry consultant, said that advocates must begin with the victims, ministering to their greatest immediate need and working on that until they can work on the next, and then the next. Victims have a spark within them, and the resiliency of the human spirit will help to heal them, if they can be reached and given hope for the future, she said.
“The healing process is long, it is arduous and there are often many, many, many curves along the path, but we must continue to simply show up in the lives of people, to accept them, to care for them, to listen to them no matter what,” Bethell said. “For no matter how long it takes, no matter how things don’t go the way that we wish. No matter what: just show up.”
Bethell, recipient of the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Award, spent the past 20 years fighting sex trafficking, first in Thailand, then in Eastern Europe. She told the audience she had stayed sane despite working some of the “darkest situations on earth” by following the example of her leader, Jesus, who went to the dark places of his time because it was the right thing to do. Using the example of the “woman of ill repute,” whom Jesus ministered to in Samaria, and who later became one of his greatest advocates, Bethell said Jesus was the ideal example of showing up.
“Jesus’ example of showing up, showing up in places where even the disciples raised their eyebrows, let me know that I can, that we can, do this,” Bethell said. “What would Jesus’ solution be in our time, in our century, of modern-day slavery? I know one thing: He’s sure pleased with what you have all done today, just shown up. He’s sure pleased with what we have seen today, people sacrificing time and energy to learn from each other and participate together in seeking solutions.”
A diverse group of more than 800 people were following her advice in attending the conference, March 19-20 on Mercer’s Macon campus. A range of attendees, from faith leaders, students, and scholars to service providers, lawyers, and community members, came to learn about the problem of modern-day slavery and how they could help defeat it. The student-led conference, titled “STOP Sex Trafficking: A Call to End 21st Century Slavery,” included presentations by advocates against human trafficking and sex slavery from around the state, the country and the world.
According to the U.S. State Department, more than a million women and children are trafficked into sex slavery each year – often forced by economic circumstances into the horrors of the sex trade. Nearly 20,000 are trafficked annually into the United States and many of these victims are trafficked into the Southeast. Mercer students in STOP, the Sex Trafficking Opposition Project, organized the conference to counter the growing worldwide crisis.
Among the presenters were trafficking survivors Kika Cerpa and Joana Santos, both of whom were trafficked into the United States, who shared their powerful stories of humiliation, manipulation, violation and redemption.
Typical of trafficking, both Cerpa and Santos were lured to the United States under false pretenses and told they owed large debts for their transportation after they arrived. Santos, who was pregnant and had paid for most of her own trip, managed to hold off her tormentors and free herself – bringing down the ring that had enslaved other girls from her native Brazil. Cerpa, who accrued a debt from her trip to New York from Venezuela, was not as lucky. She endured terrifying years as a sex slave in brothels around New York City – including three convictions for prostitution – only escaping after she made it in front of a judge who listened to her harrowing story.
“I was punished by the system and by society,” Cerpa said, highlighting a major issue in trafficking, particularly in the United States: that the legal system is only beginning to recognize that women like Cerpa are being pimped to pay false debts, rather than working by choice as prostitutes.
The legal system needs to change its focus in regards to trafficking, said Dorchen Leidholdt, co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Sanctuary for Families, the group that helped Cerpa.
“Most states have laws against prostitution that are often used against prostituted people. That is the problem with people who are trying to access the criminal justice system,” Leidholdt said. “Most states have laws against patronizing a prostitute. Those laws are, generally, rarely enforced. All of the energy of our criminal justice system, all of the resources, go to arrest prostituted people.”
Addressing those disparities, particularly in the United States, is the goal of the federal Polaris Project. Bradley Myles, deputy director of Polaris, presented some ways to target the problem. The approach to sex trafficking is three-fold, he said, focusing on prevention by targeting the men who frequent these establishments, adding protection for the victims and increasing punishment for traffickers.
Myles explained that the legal definition of sex trafficking includes either physical transportation, or simply coercing someone into sex with others. He also highlighted some of the myths about trafficking, including that the victims are always foreign, not U.S. citizens and that trafficking requires transportation.
“Don’t get boxed into thinking it’s just foreign people or that trafficking requires transportation,” Myles said. “The term trafficking simply denotes trade, buying or selling.”
One of the regions that has the highest incidence of trafficking in the United States is Atlanta, and the problem there often involves American teenagers who are runaways. Girls at homeless shelters are approached by a pimp within the first 72 hours, according to city officials. Alesia Adams, who is the youth development and sexual trafficking prevention coordinator for the south region of the Salvation Army, said it is important to realize the problem isn’t just international. “This isn’t a third-world problem anymore, it’s in your backyard,” Adams said. “Dropping your child off at the mall alone has become the same as dropping them off at Beirut.”
“Something is going on that is stealing the souls of our children and we have been asleep at the wheel,” Adams said.
The issue is also one of basic human rights, said Dr. Donna Hughes, holder of the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island and a longtime anti-trafficking advocate. In approaching new ways to fight human trafficking, Dr. Hughes said that focusing on perpetrators would be the best way to go forward, which would take the burden off the victims and stop the judgment inherent with any case of prostitution.
“We need to add a perpetrator-focused approach,” Dr. Hughes said. “We need to reform our laws so that we are targeting the perpetrators’ activities.”
Art played a part in the conference as well, which began with a reading by Patricia McCormick, the best-selling author of Sold, the story of a Nepalese child trafficked into sex slavery; and concluded with a screening of the “rockumentary” against trafficking, Call+Response, by rock musician and filmmaker Justin Dillon.
“What you are doing, and what the people in this film are doing, is really the beginnings of a movement,” Dillon said introducing his film. “I think it’s history’s job to determine movements. We can say that we’re in a movement. That’s like saying you’re in a revolution – you won’t know unless it’s successful. I think history will judge not just how this movement ends, but how it begins, and I believe that we have begun the last movement against slavery in history.
“I hope someday that history will judge that this was a movement, and I hope sincerely that it recognizes not just the work of the people in this town, but in this state,” he said. “This state is an inspiration, and what you are doing with your creativity, innovation and bringing diverse people together to work this thing out.”