As she poetically recounts her chilling life story in her recently published book, The Road of Lost Innocence, Somaly Mam was sold into sexual slavery as a young girl in Cambodia. The reader is confronted with the unimaginable brutality and debasement that defined Somaly’s days in the hands of her pimps and the men who purchased her body. Miraculously, she escaped the horrors of the commercial sex trade. Her indomitable spirit and courage led her to become a world-renowned activist and founder of AFESIP, an organization that helps thousands of women and girls survive the terrors that still haunt Somaly. Not only does she help them rebuild their lives, Somaly also advocates for strong laws and policies that would prevent trafficking, while ensuring the prosecution of traffickers, pimps, and the “johns”, who form the consumer base of the sex industry. Had Somaly been trafficked into a strip club or brothel in Ann Arbor or Atlanta, would her chances of escape have been the same? Or would she have been arrested in a police raid, jailed or deported, while her traffickers and pimps continued with business as usual, waiting for the next round of arrivals? Had Somaly been born in an American inner city, would law enforcement have come to her rescue and locked up those who enslaved her? Our current federal trafficking law and most state laws adopted from it would probably give us a tragic negative answer. Could we fix the problem? Absolutely — if the US Senate follows the leadership of the House on this issue.
A New York Times editorial, Taking On the Traffickers, August 23, 2008, laid out in crystal-clear fashion why it is so critical for the Senate to adopt the criminal justice provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act or the Wilberforce Act, passed in the House in December 2007. In an earlier column, I wrote about the urgent need for both Republican and Democratic Senators to pass the Wilberforce Act, which would better protect the thousands of trafficked individuals in this country than the bill introduced in the Senate. Indeed, every year, close to 20,000 human beings are trafficked into the United States, either forced to work as laborers with great suffering for no pay, or bought and sold, in the case of most women and girls, into the commercial sex industry. Thousands more women and girls, U.S. born, are also trafficked, pimped, damaged and dehumanized from a tender age for the multi-billion dollar profits of an organized and brutal system of commercial sexual exploitation.
While the pitched intensity of the presidential campaign leaves little time for the candidates to focus on issues other than the economy and the battleground states, the Senate is still in session, during which time it should recognize human trafficking as an invisible plague that blemishes our record on the protection of human rights. Instead, the Senate is deferring to the Department of Justice, which boasts that the ineffective tools before them are sufficient, despite the abysmally low number of sex trafficking cases they have prosecuted under current law. Rather than targeting traffickers who brutally control and transport teenagers from Kalamazoo to Tallahassee or women into the boroughs of New York City, the Justice Department concerns itself with distinctions between “soft” and “hard” pimping and the erroneous notion that the Wilberforce Act “federalizes prostitution,” a claim that is reminiscent of assertions that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction existed, repeated to justify misguided action, and in this case, inaction. Vociferously spreading unfounded affirmations does not transform them into fact. The Wilberforce Act targets pimping and traffickers, which in turn will help prevent sex trafficking and protect its victims, which in turn will help us become effective leaders in combating human trafficking. The Senate version of the reauthorization bill will not accomplish this goal.
When asked how he would address this scourge, Senator Barack Obama acknowledged that the country needed stronger legislative tools to address trafficking, a “debasement of our common humanity.” As presidential candidates and members of the Senate, both he and Senator John McCain should exercise the bipartisanship they each claim to champion and bring the Wilberforce Act into the Senate. Trafficking victims today have imperceptible voices. Our aspirations to guarantee liberty and justice for all should amplify their voices and eliminate the apathy that is allowing the exponential growth of this modern form of slavery.
Should the Senate buckle to the [Bush] Department of Justice and its failed vision, they will be held accountable. A formidable survivors’ movement is brewing. Like Somaly Mam and other heroic survivors around the globe, they will shout on our streets that the right not to be bought or sold for sex by third party profiteers is inalienable. A day will come when we will listen to their testimonies, recounting the horrific crimes perpetuated against them with impunity thanks to the winks and nods of law enforcement officials who fail to recognize that sex trafficking, fueled by gender-based violence, racism and economic despair, is unacceptable in all its forms. They will call out the names of those who exploited them and those who ignored their suffering, blinded by misogyny and indifference. As they rise above the shadows of unjustified shame, the shame will be ours for having failed to prosecute the gatekeepers of their living hell.