Modern abolitionists work to end human trafficking

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Human trafficking remains one of the great human rights abuses of our time. Several ASU organizations are taking innovative steps to fight it.

By Erin Barton

Aug. 9, 2016

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

    –Article 4, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN General Assembly (1948)

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which officially denounced slavery and the slave trade. On December 2, 1949, it adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. This day is now known as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

For the millions of people who are still victimized by human trafficking worldwide, however, these declarations provide little comfort.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. Loosely defined, it is the use of violence, fraud or other forms of coercion to force people into labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

Three distinct groups at Arizona State University are taking a multifaceted approach to this problem. The Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research is part of ASU’s School of Social Work. The All Walks Project is a student-led social venture. And The McCain Institute for International Leadership, based in Washington, D.C., is a “non-partisan do-tank,” a more action-oriented version of the traditional think tank.

Although they are separate entities, these groups frequently collaborate to amplify their impact. They also work closely with schools, law enforcement, community organizations and governments to help raise awareness, shut down traffickers and support victims.

The hidden population
Calling attention to human trafficking is important because many people don’t know what it looks like. For example, people may be surprised to learn that domestic sex trafficking victims are often U.S. natives, not just migrants from far away. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know just how many people are trafficked in the U.S. or worldwide.

“It's almost impossible to get numbers that have any actual meaning behind them when it comes to sex trafficking, because it's so hard to reach that population, for a lot of reasons. It's kind of by definition a hidden population,” says Erin Schulte, co-founder of All Walks Project, a social venture that raises awareness about sex trafficking through education.

Sometimes victims are ashamed or afraid, either of law enforcement or of their traffickers. Many times, they don’t perceive themselves as victims. How is that possible?

Schulte explains.

“Let’s say a 13-year-old girl runs away from home for whatever reason. Then the girl spends a night or two on the street, and an older guy approaches her and offers her a place to stay. She stays with him because she has no other option, in her mind at least. It seems fine at first. He gives her gifts, he takes her shopping and says, ‘Here, we'll go to the mall, pick out whatever you want.’ She's thrilled, ecstatic. She thinks that she's found the guy for her,” Schulte says.

“And then it turns into a situation where he brings his friends and says, ‘here, I want you to have sex with these people,’” she continues. “The girl might agree to it at first–although she's a minor so she can’t give consent–but it often turns into something where he is pressuring or forcing her to perform sexual acts on other people for money. That girl might not consider herself to be a victim of sex trafficking, but by the very definition of sex trafficking, she is.”

Schulte, Jessica Hocken and Jasmine Anglen, all students in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College, founded All Walks Project in 2014. They incorporated in May that year and were later selected for ASU's Edison Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

“We really focus on peer-to-peer education on sex trafficking. We believe that's the best way to prevent trafficking from occurring within at-risk student populations,” Schulte says.

The group focuses on high school students as well as college students, whose frequent financial struggles can make them targets. By partnering with The McCain Institute at ASU, they’ve been able to amplify their message.

A hub for human rights
The McCain Institute was launched with a $9 million gift from The McCain Institute Foundation, a charitable trust funded by Arizona Senator John McCain. It is a nonpartisan and nonprofit education and research center, focused on promoting character-driven leadership, particularly in humanitarian work, human rights and democracy, and national security.

Much of The McCain Institute’s work has national and international reach, like the Human Trafficking Conversation Series, which convenes leading experts and practitioners combating human trafficking to further public discourse in different parts of the country. However, the institute is heavily invested in the Arizona community as well.

Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator McCain, serves as co-chair of the Governor’s Arizona Human Trafficking Council and chair of The McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council. She is a lifelong humanitarian who has committed herself to the cause of human trafficking.

Cindy McCain lends her expertise to various human trafficking events, such as the inaugural ASU Sex Trafficking Awareness Week, presented by The McCain Institute and All Walks Project in January 2015. The event reached more than 20,000 students, faculty and staff, and inspired the institute’s Student Alliance Against Trafficking program.

"I am proud of The McCain Institute’s integrated partnership with the ASU student group All Walks. Involving groups like All Walks on campus and in the broader community and empowering them to carry the important message about the signs and dangers of human trafficking to other students is extraordinarily important. Students are often targets of traffickers through online solicitations, social media and thinly disguised offers of help for college expenses. The McCain Institute and All Walks are together at the front of the fight providing information and tools to students, starting at ASU," says Cindy McCain. 

She also hosted a conversation and film screening of “A Path Appears” at ASU in partnership with All Walks Project, and has appeared in public awareness videos aimed at college students. 

The McCain Institute is also working to build awareness through the No Such Thing campaign, a partnership with Google and the Human Rights Project for Girls. The campaign draws public attention to the legal and moral fact that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Minors used for sex by adults are by definition abuse victims. Pimps are by definition human traffickers. “Johns” are by definition child rapists. Calling a survivor of child rape a prostitute “diminishes the violence, harm, trauma and coercion that a trafficked child is subject to,” according to the campaign website.

The campaign urges media outlets, politicians, social services and law enforcement to stop using the term “child prostitute,” in order to reshape the way the public thinks about child sex trafficking.

“We have tried to develop a comprehensive approach to combating human trafficking,” says Kurt Volker, executive director of The McCain Institute. “We have worked to raise public awareness, support original research, support best practices in state legislation, provide technical assistance, train law enforcement and social services, and develop new technologies to aid law enforcement and speed up identification of victims.”

Stop signs layered on top of one another
All Walks Project invited ASU students to make stop signs that raise awareness about human trafficking.
credit: Erin Schulte

Information supporting action
The institute recently sponsored a two-year study that examined the impact of large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, on sex trafficking, using Phoenix as one of its case studies. The study was led by Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, co-director of ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR).

The research team used ASU’s Decision Theater Network to display the findings and give policymakers and law enforcement officials a tool to examine real-time data on sex trafficking at Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix.

“We learned some important pieces of information, including the way the sex market works during large events, the presence of networks and circuits of sex trafficking, that most sex buyers are from the local area, and there are indicators of sex trafficking in many of the sex ads online,” says Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Social Work.

Before she came to ASU, Roe-Sepowitz was a clinical social worker who helped people that were sexually abused, as well as incarcerated women.

“I realized that prostitution was a theme that ran between all of the clients that I saw in some way or another. Many of them had significant negative impacts from it. They were really traumatized by it, really affected–their self-esteem and the way that they looked at the world–because of those experiences,” she says.

Upon arriving at ASU in 2005, she immediately began building connections with existing community programs that help ex-prostitutes. Both STIR and The McCain Institute also provide guidance to law enforcement and policymakers.

For example, the institute sponsored a STIR-based study to train adult probation officers in Maricopa County to better identify and work with victims of sex trafficking. They also advised on Arizona House Bill 2454, which increased penalties for sex traffickers and buyers and created protections for victims.

“In my work with thousands of prostituted persons, only a handful were engaged in prostitution because it was the best choice for them,” says Roe-Sepowitz. “The rest were prostituting due to a lack of options or being conned, manipulated or threatened to do it.”

In 2015, STIR trained 1,100 Arizona Department of Child Safety workers and 547 juvenile probation officers in sex trafficking awareness. The work was funded by the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children, Youth and Families and the Arizona Governor’s Office, respectively.

“The goal is to develop research to help those workers identify sex trafficking within their cases as well as increase their ability to help prevent sex trafficking victimization of their clients by recognizing the risks and having the skills to intervene,” says Roe-Sepowitz.  

STIR also organizes the Phoenix 1st Step pop-up drop-in center, which provides medical, mental health, substance abuse, housing, and other supportive social and medical services to individuals who are or have been involved in prostitution or sex trafficking situations. More than 20 community partners, including All Walks Project, have participated in the one-day events held in January (right before the Super Bowl) and November 2015.

Whether they are raising awareness, conducting research or providing services, all of the ASU groups involved in anti-trafficking efforts rely on strong relationships within the community to promote positive changes for the community.

“Between the city and the governor's office and the collaborators that we work with, it's really a great opportunity that uses the expertise of the university, not to get in the way of services and entrepreneurship and innovation, but to support it,” says Roe-Sepowitz. “We’ve really had that opportunity here. And the attitude of our administration to go out and make changes and be socially embedded and active has been a great asset to me.”