I'm taking a class this semester that I, honestly, wasn't expecting to be very good. The course examines the rhetoric of women in 19th century America in the various social movements they participated in. Being a 20th century British young adult literature enthusiast (check all the modifiers, there's quite a few), I wasn't really looking forward to taking this course.
I have been surprised, however, by how much I'm finding out about the ways my predecessors in America not only fought for their own rights, but loved their neighbor by fighting alongside them. One particular group of women struck a chord: The New York Female Moral Reform Society. The NYFMRS was formed to battle the rising tide of prostitution in New York City in the early 1800s. These women (and some men) discovered, upon researching the problem of prostitution, which involved on the lowest level simply talking to the prostitutes, that the main reasons most of them became prostitutes was not, as was commonly thought, because they were somehow licentious and devilish women. Rather, most of them were forced to because of economic hardship. Because of the way that laws about the rights of women functioned in 19th century America, a woman found it very hard to make a living once her husband had passed, or if she was unmarried to begin with. Many of them found prostitution to be a good alternative to starvation.
Fast forward to 2009. This is the same situation many women across the world are facing, especially in these economically hard times. As we see numbers of the hungry and the homeless increasing, you can be assured that the numbers of those being forced to sell themselves for sex has increased as well.
Siddarth Kara, author of the 2009 book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery writes that in traveling the globe to research slavery, "No discovery shocked me more than the extreme level of bias and socioeconomic disenfranchisement that millions of women face across the globe. These factors contribute directly to female vulnerability to slave traders when the surrounding political and economic infrastructures disintegrated." Kara goes on to tell us that in India, 15,000 women are murdered each year in dowry disputes, even though the dowry system is illegal. "Life for millions of women in South Asia is a process of terrible abuse," he writes.
Disenfranchised women, like those we find in various third world and developing countries, are those most at risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking. Similar to the situation of many 19th century women in America, the disenfranchised women across the globe believe that they have no other option, that this is what they must do in order not to starve on the street, or have their family starve alongside them. And like the NYFMRS, we must do what we can to remedy this situation.
What does this mean, then?
In the long run, it means changing the laws to give women more of a chance. It means cracking down on those who buy sex; it means targeted punishment of the men who operate to oppress women and create the demand for sex. It means a change in attitude across the globe.
Surely, these are high and lofty goals, but ones I hope I can see realized. But what little old you and little old me do, right here, right now? Kara offers us some possibilities:
1. Become Aware. Read, research, do what you can to learn about the sex industry and its connections with trafficking. Learn how the world economies fit together, even if it's just a cursory understanding. Begin to realize that the things you purchase, the actions you take, even if you're just one person in Waco, TX, USA, do make a difference.
2. Financial Support. Donate to NGO's. Donate to this trip I'm going on so I can learn more about the issue and do something to help. Kara writes that "Even if sex trafficking ended today, there would be over one million women and children in need of shelter, health care, counseling and vocational training." Aftercare is just as important as, if not more than, rescue.
3. Community vigilance. Pay attention to what's going on around you! In Central Texas alone, there have been around 7 cases of caught and prosecuted traffickers, just because someone in the community noticed something wrong and spoke up.*
4. Write a letter. Contact your Congressperson, tell them to get the ball rolling on enforcing international laws against trafficking, to provide money toward aftercare, to do something to change the disenfranchisement of women in the world today.
These are small steps, but ones that will make a big difference.
**Title quote taken from The Advocate of Moral Reform, a periodical published by the NYFMRS in the late 1830s. It was said by a prostitute at a brothel interviewed for the first edition of The Advocate.