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March is Women's History Month, a nationwide celebration of all that women are and all that they can achieve. It also marks an important opportunity to remember the continuing challeges that women face around the world and right here in the United States.

For example, the recent sting operation in Florida, in which dozen of men were caught soliciting prostitution from trafficked women, made many people wring their hands and ask how such a thing could be going on. But trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the U.S. It is often happening right in our own neighborhoods and cmmunities.

Women and children are the moost likely targets; in 2017, they made up 80 % of the instances reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In the U.S., a girl's average age of entry into the sex trafficking industry is 14 years old. Between 2016 and 2017, there were 5,455 victims of sex trafficking detected by Deparment Of Justice-funded victim service providers; 1,759 of these were children. Because of the underground nature of the crime, however, the number of undetected victims is likely exponentially larger.

Women and children who are trafficked are exremly vulnerable, as they often are solf for sex or forced to work for no pay at all, often in dangerous conditions. And by spreading awarness and offering support to victims through church, government, nonprofit, and other programs, we can help end this terrible industry.

Consider Ester (not her real name). Raised by her grandmother in another country, she and her infant child came to the U.S. to join her mother in North Carolina. Unbeknownst to her, her mother has started a "hostess club," inviting men to the house to sell alcohol, food, and sex. Ester's mother forced her to sell all of these to the various buyers, manipulating her daughter by clainming that if she didn't "work," she would not eat.

Ester's story is a typical case of sex trafficking. And while sex trafficking is the most common kind of trafficking, it isn't the only kind that occurs within our borders. Labor trafficking is also a common form of exploitation. And though you might be inclined to think that wealthy individulas have no need for forced labor, or that only unskilled workers wind up in trafficking situations, Another story shows that this is far from the case.

A trained nurse and midwife, Elizabeth (again, not her real name) had worked for a large hospital before a wealthy family brought her over to the U.S. to work as a nanny. Almost as soon as she arrived, however, the family began taking advantage of her. Refusing to return her passport to her, they confined her in their home and forced her to work without pay and without days off.

We’ve come to know Esther and Elizabeth because of our anti-trafficking work in North Carolina, where we coordinate with federal and local law enforcement agencies to assist trafficking survivors to recover and successfully re-enter society. Esther and Elizabeth both have come through our aftercare program, which gives them access to housing and legal immigration assistance, mental health and family reunification services, and medical case management and navigation, along with other key services.

Helping someone transition out of trafficking is a difficult undertaking, far more complex than simply removing them from the trafficking situation. Trafficking strips survivors of their mental and physical health, their family ties and friendship networks, and the capacity for self-sufficiency. Only a holistic approach to rehabilitation can fully restore them to all that they’re capable of being and becoming.

Trafficking destroys an individual’s ability to trust — but consistent, compassionate friendship can begin to restore it. Our volunteers assist survivors with learning languages, transportation to and from appointments, and finding job opportunities. Our volunteers are lifelines of support who help trafficking victims who feel so vulnerable experience deep and lasting emotional transformation through friendship.

Everyone can play a role in stopping trafficking and helping end modern day slavery by spreading information about the prevalence of trafficking today, donating pro bono hours for legal, psychological, or medical services, or raising your voice to your elected officials to pass anti-trafficking laws

This Women’s History Month, we must remember that trafficking runs rampant in our communities, and vulnerable women are often most at risk. By collectively raising awareness, helping identify and rescue victims, and changing our laws and policies, we can look for opportunities to help women all around the world escape the vicious cycle of violence and oppression and make modern-day slavery history.


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