Protecting Dignity, Ending Slavery
- Created on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 20:27
On Monday, February 27, JRLC and iCAN had the great pleasure of co-hosting a panel conversation on human trafficking in Minnesota called Protecting Dignity, Ending Slavery. Our panelists, all leading experts on the issue in Minnesota, offered challenging, insightful, and energizing thoughts and experiences that illustrated how this important issue impacts our state. Human trafficking, a modern form of slavery, is one of the most heinous human rights violations facing our society. Marred with misconceptions because of it's nature as an underground and hidden industry, trafficking is just beginning to emerge on the public radar.
Our four panelists were: Dr. Lauren Martin, University of Minnesota researcher, Suzanne Koepplinger, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, Joy Friedman, with Breaking Free, and a survivor of being trafficked, and Michele McKenzie, Advocacy Director and attorney, The Advocates for Human Rights. The women represented four very different and necessary approaches to combatting human trafficking in our state. Dr. Martin began the evening by discussing her primary research in North Minneapolis, and clarifying language and terminology around the issue. She explained that she does not use the term "prostitute" when referring to people who trade sex, because it is an income generating activity that happens in a context of exploitation and violence, it is not a chosen identity. Her finding supported the idea that social vulnerability makes people more likely to become victims of trafficking, and often victims suffer from a history of violence.
Next Suzanne Koepplinger discussed her work researching and addressing trafficking in the American Indian community in Minnesota. In 2008, the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center published a report titled Shattered Hearts, which found that trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls is a prevalent problem; they estimated that at least 345 American Indian women and girls in Minnesota had been sexually trafficked in a three-year period.
After Suzanne, Joy shared her experience as a victim of trafficking and how her work with Breaking Free has given her the opportunity to transform that experience into a teaching opportunity. She elaborated on how trafficking and sexual exploitation can often become generational problems in the lives of victims. A child raised in a family with violence, suffering from PTSD and brain trauma, is more likely to fall into cycles of poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, and marginalization which make them susceptible to victimization. Low sef-esteem and a lacking social safety net makes the advances and pseudo-security of a trafficker seem like a good option.
Finally, Michele Garnett McKenzie discussed how trafficking is being addressed at a structural level in Minnesota. Last year, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Safe Harbors bill (which decriminalized child prostitution), adding to legislation that was already in place. While there is still policy work to be done, Minnesota has some of the nation's strongest state legislation on this issue. Michele stressed the importance of infrastructure investments, such as programs designed to aid the victims of trafficking, and said that obtaining funding for these programs will be the next steps in achieving systemic change.
After, offering their presentations, our panelists took questions from the audience. They discussed, further, the need for changing social perceptions to cultivate an understanding that sexual exploitation is never something that can be consented to, and victims are involved in a system of force, fraud and coercion, where they are being manipulated and taken advantage of for someone else's gain. There is also a need to address the demand aspect of the sex trading industry. All of the panelists reinforced the fact that there is a profitable and thriving sex trade industry because there is a demand for it. While this aspect of the issue may be the most difficult to tackle, program's like Breaking Free's "John's School" are taking a step in the right direction by confronting the purchasers with the realities of their crimes.
As they were wrapping up, the panelists suggested that while this complex issues must be addressed through a multiplicity of approaches, as a community our primary concern should be tending to the victims of this crime. One of the best preventative measures and a necessary resource for recovery is stable housing.
In the end, the conversation was truly thought provoking and challenging. Trafficking is such a complex and sinister issues, and is difficult to adequately track and understand. For this reason, it has largely been under the radar of the general public. But thanks in part to the work of our panelists, and other organizations and individuals in our state and around the country, we are beginning to pay more attention. In the next couple years we will be focusing energy on obtaining funding in the state budget for victims services and trainings for people who respond to trafficking incidents. With a projected deficit in for the next biennium, this will be a challenge, but our state budget is about priorities, and addressing the needs of trafficking victims should absolutely be a state priority.