“To those who are struggling. To talk about a struggle, you're likely to forget about it. To be shown a struggle, you're likely not to forget it. But, to live through a struggle, you'll understand it.” ― Valerie Owens, America Huh I'm Going Home
Picture this: From an early age, you endure years of abuse at the hands of your own parents. Then, after surviving such traumatic experiences, you are subjected to even more abuse and forced into prostitution by a menacing pimp. And then you are offered as a sex-slave to a man nearly three times your age. After resisting advances from this man, he threatens you with gun. What would you do? You would defend yourself by any means necessary. That’s what you’d do. That’s exactly what Cyntoia Brown did in 2004. And as you sit in your Algebra 2 class she’s still serving her life sentence.
In late November a number of celebrities including Rihanna revived the seemingly closed case of Cyntoia Brown, who, over a decade ago, at age 16 was sentenced to life in prison after fatally shooting a 43-year old man who had hired her as sex-worker.
Another story we don’t know and don’t care about is Shandra Woworuntu. She explains her ordeal as sex-slave, newly immigrated to the United States. Woworuntu, at the age of 24, immigrated to the US in the summer of 2001 in the wake of Indonesia’s financial crisis in search of work to support her then 3 year old daughter, who was not much older than I was at the time. When she arrived at the JFK airport, a man named Johnny, who she had expected would take her to her new hotel job, was waiting for her. But Johnny was not who he said he was, and Woworuntu never made it to her hotel job. Instead, she spent the next three months forced into prostitution and drug abuse and subjected to physical and mental abuse, all at the hands of Johnny, who was a pimp. Had it not been for a good Samaritan with FBI connections, she may never have escaped and lived to tell about it.
Over the past several weeks the case of Cyntoia Brown has gone viral on social media. Both Brown’s case and conviction as well as the Woworuntu ordeal are very unsettling, but what I find even more unsettling is that these are not just two isolated incidents. Everyday young women and men are sucked into the world of sex-slavery and forced labor, objectified and dehumanized, and often nothing is done to stop it.
To show just how prevalent the of problem human trafficking is in the present day, the International Labor Organization conducted a study (2012) that “estimated that there are 20.9 million human trafficking victims worldwide” (Alvarez). A study by equalitynow.org also found that about two million children are exploited each year through this trade. Fifty-four percent of all these victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 96% of these victims are women and girls.
Most people probably don’t know this and refuse to believe that slavery, which is illegal in all states, still exists as it did in the past. I was surprised to learn how prominent human trafficking is in the modern day world. But the issue here is not one of not knowing. It’s not caring.
So why should Philly teenagers care about this anyway? Because, “It could be going on in school, near home,” says Anne Marie Jones, a graduate and a counselor at Dawn’s Place in Germantown. Anne Marie is a survivor of human trafficking herself. She is dedicated to helping other women subjected to sexual exploitation. “I feel it’s not just teens that should know about this, everyone should be informed,” she says, “because anyone could be a victim.” If you or someone you know is involved human trafficking the “first thing you should do is call the hotline, 1 (888) 373-7888 or text "HELP" or "INFO" to 233733,” Anne Marie says. “If you’re being held against your will, try to indicate to passerbyers what’s going on and where you’re being taken. Try to reach out to someone who you feel can be trusted. Or, act sick and try to get to a hospital where you can find help.”
Between February 2014 and March 2017, researchers from three organizations interviewed nearly 1,000 homeless youth across 13 cities, and nearly 300 of these young people were from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. They found that nineteen percent of all the interviewed youth were victims of human trafficking, with 15 percent were trafficked for sex. This entails all commercial sex acts that involve force, fraud or coercion, or if a victim is under age 18. “In addition, they found that while Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth accounted for only 19 percent of the respondents, they accounted for 34 percent of the sex-trafficking victims” (Field Center at Penn)
African American author James Baldwin (1924-1987) once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Society as we know it has changed. In my reading of James Baldwin, I felt that he was saying that people have become severely detached from the world and developed an inability to sympathize and, more importantly, empathize with other people. We are too concerned with our own superficial issues and materialistic pursuits to care about girls like Cyntoia Brown and Shandra Woworuntu. And this is a very disturbing truth that still exists today.
Incidents like Cyntoia Brown’s will continue to happen as long as we allow it. In order to prevent sex slavery from continuing to happen we need to face some harsh realities of our world. And try not to shy away from that truth.
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