February 12 was Human Trafficking Lobby Day at the Texas State Capitol. It’s a subject few want to talk about, let alone actively address. A group of courageous people were downtown on the steps of the capitol building this lobby day.
One of those dedicated persons was a Lago Vista resident, Cathy White, mother of four, two sets of boy/girl twins, ages seven and ten. Co-chair of World Vision’s Austin chapter of Women of Vision, she plays a very active role in the work on a local level. She explained there is an 11-person police unit in Austin that works on the issue of human trafficking, most of it related to sex trafficking and/or prostitution. Before addressing the other part of modern-day slavery, labor trafficking, what is the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking?
The difference is consent versus the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person sexually for profit. In the case of minors, it is always a sex trafficking crime to sell a minor for sex. Yet, this crime permeates every nation and most cities. Trafficking is even in our own suburbs and towns in Central Texas. How? Because buyers of sex live everywhere and criminals and organized crime rings are all too ready to meet that demand with supply. Oftentimes, the “supply” are run-aways who have been sexually abused at home. With the advent of the Internet, demand has outpaced supply so that pimps are even luring the all-American girl next door via social media. Why? It’s very lucrative to sell a girl again and again versus sell a drug one time. These “boyfriends” feed a girl with compliments, a few nice gifts, and some loving words. When they cajole their “girlfriend” into having sex with a buddy to help ends meet, it’s the beginning of a nightmare. Other times, the pimp immediately uses violence or the threat of violence, especially against loved ones, to force a girl to do his bidding.
Most teenage girls are easy prey for traffickers. In the U.S., the typical age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation, legally known as sex trafficking, is 12 years old. Unfortunately, many girls will never get out without outside help. Often any ID they have is taken from them, but more insidious is the emotional hold over the victim. When a rescue occurs, if there’s space available, (a big assumption since human trafficking shelters are in woefully short supply), survivors live in shelters for 12-24 months until ready to enter “normal” society. The road to such recovery is fraught with emotional ups and downs. A girl often returns to “the life” seven to nine times before finally realizing the truth of her situation and her own self-worth. That’s the price of a lifetime of neglect and abuse.
How did White end up volunteering to help fight human trafficking which is also known as modern-day slavery? In 2005, Cathy left her corporate career to stay at home to raise her children. However, beginning in 2010, despite having four young children, she began to feel God’s call to action through Women of Vision - a volunteer ministry of World Vision. Now, more than 260 women from different Austin metro churches are uniting to learn and do as God leads. Cathy has traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for stronger laws against modern-day slavery. Her family sponsors girls in Kenya, El Salvador and Bangladesh through World Vision to help fight poverty and the exploitation that all too often lurks in the wings. While it would have been easy to turn away and focus on her own children, she became impassioned when she started collecting news stories about human trafficking arrests in Central Texas. White says, “Sex or labor trafficking cases have occurred in Round Rock and downtown Austin hotels, residential NW Austin, a Cedar Park massage parlor, and popular San Marcos Chinese restaurant.” As she kept digging and learning more, she and her group joined with other groups in Austin to tell others and help trafficking survivors.
Recently, she co-led the planning of a second annual Christmas dinner in Austin for recovering foreign-born victims of human trafficking and their families, through “Refugee Services of Texas”. Along with food, entertainment, and Christmas gifts supplied by “Allies against Slavery”, Santa was present for pictures with the families and the children. White says that such simple gestures are important. “Survivors need to know they are valued…that their community cares. Not just about what happened to them, but also about their future wellbeing. When a stranger goes out of his or her way to help, it helps to counteract the past hurt and darkness a survivor has experienced. That message is why we support international efforts to combat poverty and exploitation like trafficking, but also serve locally to combat the very same evil.”
Overseas, the picture is as bad as you would expect. Children are lured, sold and forced into sex trafficking, and also into forced child labor in various industries. One example is the chocolate industry. Chocolate products come from cacao beans, which are grown primarily on plantations in western African countries such as the Ivory Coast. To maximize profit, forced child labor is rampant. Thankfully, consumers are becoming aware that some products are now labeled with “fair trade” statements, which to varying degrees means there were transparency and care involved in the growing and marketing process. As a result, it’s possible to vote with your dollars and support slave-free chocolate.
White recommends a book called “Refuse to Do Nothing”, written by two moms whose passion is to educate the public about these problems and encourage the thought that everyone has some kind of power to help.
World Vision, the parent charity, was founded in 1950 to help widows and orphans. Today it works in 100 countries to address the root causes of poverty and oppression. As an example of addressing root causes, one of its newest projects, Channels of Hope for Gender, focuses on changing the underlying practice of violence against women and children in the home and in the community. Such culturally held views and practices perpetuate cycles of poverty and exploitation and must be addressed to help prevent exploitation – such as trafficking -- in the first place.
World Vision is a 501c3 organization and is the largest Christian humanitarian aid nonprofit. White reported that 85% of monies contributed go to the work, 10 percent to fundraising expense, and the 5 percent balance to operating expense.
If you are interested in helping with this work or sponsoring a child, please contact White at email@example.com or visit austin.womenofvision.org. Note that you can sponsor a child by investing in the child’s own country thus thwarting the chances of exploitation due to poverty.
(Use accompanying photo of Cathy White. Caption: Cathy White is Co-chair of World Vision’s Austin chapter of Women of Vision. She spends her time working to solve the human trafficking problem that is evident even in Central Texas suburbs . Courtesy photo)