I’ve always enjoyed a good quote…something inspirational; something challenging to make me think; or even something simple and funny. So in honor of black history month, I thought I would extend a little of my weekend to reading through some of Martin Luther King’s words of wisdom. However, when I came across a certain line from Letters from a Birmingham Jail, I was moved from thoughts of Dr. King and his contemporaries to one of the primary human rights issues that surrounds me right now… “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” To someone who has spent the last few years of her college career learning about human trafficking, I instinctively read this quote with that issue in mind. The thing that captures my attention most about human trafficking, or modern-day slavery as some call it, is that the oppressed seem to have no voice at all. From the young man resigned to slave-labor in a brick kiln in India, to the homeless American teenage girl who gets bought and sold within her own country so that men can rape her repeatedly for small fee; these are the world’s most vulnerable, and the thought that they could demand freedom from their oppressors just seems so distant and unrealistic, evoking a sense of hopelessness rather than the rhetoric of victory and perseverance with which we discuss the efforts of Dr. King.
This seems to be a general trend among people who learn about human trafficking for the first time, but instead of allowing ourselves to wallow in the weight and complexity of it all, I would like to offer a few tools to help you move forward to more productive mindset, because we’re no good to anyone if we become paralyzed by despair. The thing that made the biggest difference to me was to realize that there are actually things being done about this. In terms of international efforts, the 2000 UN Protocol to to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons set the stage for inter-governmental coordination of anti-trafficking efforts, such as the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. The US has enacted federal anti-trafficking legislation since 2000, and most states have followed suit, and we are now seeing victims being rescued, protected, and offered services, and traffickers being sent to jail.
There is, however, much work still to be done, and it is at this junction– where the state falls short – that the NGO community has always stepped in, and the issue of human trafficking is no exception. Several of my favorite anti-trafficking NGOs are: the Polaris Project, International Justice Mission, and Not for Sale, I highly encourage you to look into them, get excited about their efforts, and then take the next step of reflecting upon the role that you can play. I used to feel frustrated at how poorly placed I was to help these people, until I reconciled with the fact that I’m an undergraduate student, and while I can’t do everything, there are a few things that I can and must do at this stage in my life. I can educate myself in order to be the most effective advocate possible; and no matter where you’re at in life, that is an incredibly important action step. The Carolina Women’s Center has created a database with that exact end in mind (http://humantrafficking.unc.edu/). If you’re a UNC student, you could get involved with one of the trafficking-related student organizations, such as CAST, UNC-CH IJM, and the CWC’s Human Trafficking program. If you’re not a student, there are still a handful of organizations in the Chapel-Hill/Raleigh/Durham area that you can volunteer with or financially support, such as NC Stop (http://ncstophumantrafficking.wordpress.com/), The Salvation Army of Wake County (http://www.keepthebellringing.org/), or the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (http://www.nccasa.net/).
You might not be able to pursue anti-trafficking work vocationally or give thousands of dollars to these organizations, but the one response that is simply unacceptable is to dwell in ignorance, indifference, or worse, paralyzing despair. As a human being, you just have to care, even a little; and if you allow yourself to care, do it in a way that actually benefits those for whom your heart breaks by learning how to advocate alongside the many organizations and individuals that have been in this game for a while. I can think of no better closing word of encouragement than one from Dr. King himself: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
By Chelsea Banister, APPLES Intern with the Carolina Women’s Center