Last week, as I waited for my 12-year-old daughter to join me for a vacation in a small city in Mexico, I visited a shelter for young girls who are victims of sex trafficking.
One girl, who is also a mother, was celebrating her 16th birthday. She was rescued at 14, after being forced into sex work at age 11.
I won't detail the horrors of what happened to this girl over the next three years. I will say this: No human being should ever have to endure the trauma she suffered.
What separates this girl from my daughter? An accident of birth. She was born to an indigenous community so lacking in economic opportunity that someone sold her for what they perceived to be her greatest worth, her sexuality.
Thankfully, this young woman was found and rescued. But, as Ima Matul, a courageous survivor of human trafficking, highlighted this week at the Democratic National Convention, there are millions of other victims of human trafficking who remain in the shadows. As the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is commemorated each July 30, it is imperative to shine light on this unspeakable issue.
Human trafficking, in general terms, refers to the abduction and trade of humans, often for sexual exploitation and forced labor. It is the most rapidlygrowing criminal industry in the world. According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 20 million people globally are victims of trafficking. Of these, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 55 percent are female, and 26 percent are children.
Human trafficking is also highly profitable - the ILO estimates that the industry generates approximately $150 billion per year. For impoverished communities, underpaid government officials, drug cartels, and criminal networks, that is a powerful sum.
This is a monstrous issue, and yet it receives paltry attention. Why? The ugly truth, if we are honest, is that many people just don't want to know. We often prefer the comfort of thinking that slavery has been abolished. Or perhaps that this is someone else's problem, but not something that happens in our country or in our communities.
Yet, modern-day slavery exists and is thriving in the Americas. There are no official statistics on the number of human trafficking victims in the U.S., but Polaris, a leading nonprofit dedicated to the issue, estimates that there are hundreds of thousands.
That could include the 15-year-old busboy at your local diner. Or the frightened young woman you saw at the gas station last week.
At Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), a nonprofit focused on Latino issues in the Americas, we have taken a particular interest in human trafficking because U.S. victims primarily originate from our neighbors in Latin America. The single-largest source of sex slaves sent to the U.S. is a city in Tlaxcala State, two hours southeast of Mexico City, according to the U.S. State Department.
We have also made human trafficking a priority because it's an issue that deeply touches our humanity. As long as millions of our sisters and brothers are enslaved, none of us can truly be free.
Such a vast, complex problem will not be easy to solve. But we can all do our part.
As an organization working on the front lines of philanthropy, HIP is uniquely positioned to help. We are raising awareness, building coalitions of foundations and individual donors, and supporting the heroic grassroots nonprofits that are providing direct services to the most vulnerable among us. For example, in partnership with the Oak Foundation and many others, we are supporting nonprofits in Mexico that are fighting to eradicate human trafficking and exploitation and combating domestic violence.
You, too, can join these efforts:
- Get educated. This is a hard issue to face, but it's imperative that we muster the courage to do so. Read more about the United Nations' efforts to combat human trafficking. Start a conversation by sharing your findings with your friends and family on Facebook or Twitter.
- Leverage your resources. We all have something to give. If you work for a government agency or foundation, set human trafficking as an agenda item and allocate organizational resources to address it. If you're a student, convene an event educating your classmates. If you have $5 or $50 to spare, donate today to an organization that is fighting for change.
- Keep your eyes open. If you think someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, call Polaris' National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Watch for individuals who lack identification documents and money, are unable to change jobs or homes, stop communicating, or are victims of physical and/or emotional violence.
World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is just one day, but for millions of victims worldwide it's weeks, months, or years of their lives. Let's help raise them out of the shadows. Let's take a stand.
Diana Campoamor is the President of Hispanics in Philanthropy, a transnational network of grantmakers committed to empower Latino communities across the Americas. Its mission is to strengthen Latino leadership, voice, and equity.