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Modern slavery

Mizzou group’s anti-trafficking week aims to raise the value of human┬álife

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Illustration by Josh Nichols
  • Published: Sept. 11, 2008

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, even helpless. Anyone taking in recent reports and images of children sold into prostitution or migrants forced into labor camps might wonder, “But what can I do about it?”

Stop Traffic has answers.

Anti Human Trafficking Week

Following up on its spring 2008 Anti Human Trafficking Conference on campus, Mizzou’s student-founded human-rights organization Stop Traffic is back in full force for fall. Leaders have joined with university and community groups to declare Sept. 14-20 “Anti Human Trafficking Week” in Columbia.

Sandwiching events at nearby Stephens College and Christian Chapel Academy, Stop Traffic hosts the fund-raising Concert to End Slavery Sept. 14 and Abolition in the Park Sept. 19. Both happenings include guest speakers, such as Not for Sale campaign founder David Batstone, and live music, by artists such as the Caleb Rowden Band. Proceeds from the concert support local anti-trafficking work and help fund a safe house for trafficking survivors in Peru.

All events aim to both keep people informed about the 21st-century black-market slave trade and tell them how to help.

“One goal is to reach communities who haven’t thought about this a lot,” says Mizzou senior Jennifer Kimball, a Truman Scholar who founded Stop Traffic with fellow student Paige Hendrix in spring 2007. “They can come and learn about what they can do to fight human trafficking and learn how we can use art and music to raise awareness about the issue and also to take action.”

Acting locally

The work begins right here in Columbia, Kimball says. Mid-Missourians may perceive human trafficking as a foreign or big-city problem, but, according to police and social-serivce workers, Columbia has been the site of domestic slavery and sexual exploitation of women from regions such as Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Comprehensive Human Services, known as The Shelter, has helped human trafficking victims here every year for the past five years, and the Columbia Police Department has stepped up its focus.

Among the targets of Stop Traffic’s awareness campaign this year are people in positions to detect and report the crimes: health care professionals, who come into contact with victims of sexual exploitation, and businesspeople, who might encounter forced-labor practices.

It isn't clear how many victims are out there.

“It’s really hard to get numbers,” Kimball says. “That’s one of the tricky things with trafficking since it is so hidden.”

Advocating nationally

For Kimball, getting the word out is just a first step.

“I get tired of ‘awareness’ sometimes; I feel like we need to move beyond that and do something,” the women’s and gender studies major says. “We’re trying to engage students to take action in ways that are pro-active and not just reactive.”

Stop Traffic Vice President Kessaya Speckman, a Mizzou senior majoring in international studies and Spanish, recently returned from a three-day meeting of the National Student Coalition Against Slavery in Washington, D.C., during which campus leaders from throughout the country developed activist strategies and lobbied legislators. In October a group of Mizzou students will visit the nation’s capital to lobby for better – and better-enforced – federal trafficking legislation.

The advocates want to change laws and policies that overlook domestic human-trade cases involving U.S. citizens or that complicate protective services for immigrants.

“One of the ways that traffickers control their victims is by taking away their papers, threatening them with deportation,’” Kimball says. Foreign victims of human trafficking can apply for T-visas under 2000’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but most don’t know they have that option, and those who do have to jump through multiple legal hoops to get help.

Hard work

In all types of cases, traffickers use violence, threats, force, fraud and/or coercion to control their human commodities.

At last year’s conference, a U.S.-citizen trafficking victim reported being forced into prostitution and repeatedly gang raped as a teenager; the men controlling her threatened to murder her family if she resisted them or sought outside help.

Kimball and Speckman agree hearing stories like these can be emotionally draining.

“It is a heavy topic, and it can be hard sometimes to keep working on it,” Kimball says. She hopes the week of events can re-energize supporters. “This is an opportunity to get revved up again.”

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Last updated: Dec. 31, 2012