(WOMENSENEWS)--A young girl is dragged up the stairs of a dark and dirty hotel. A man, carrying a pair of candy-apple red high heels, pushes her against a wall and says, "Do you want me to kill your sister?"
The girl shakes her head, puts on the shoes and is pushed into a room, where a large, leering man shoves her to the ground and begins to unbuckle his pants. The girl looks toward the window and, in a flash, she throws herself out, crashing onto a car roof, dead in an instant.
So begins Lifetime Television's mini-series on sex trafficking, "Human Trafficking," a four-hour movie that premieres tonight that explores the international trade that enslaves tens of thousands of women a year.
Executives at the cable channel say the series is the first dramatic look at the industry.
The series unfolds through stories of a rookie immigration agent on the trail of a deadly criminal kingpin, two Eastern European women forced into sex slavery in the United States and the ordeal of an American teen kidnapped off the streets of Manila for sale into the sex trade.
The cable channel has combined entertainment with advocacy, launched public awareness campaigns and supported legislation to improve women's lives. "Human Trafficking" was created with just this aim. Producers at Lifetime are hoping that the mini-series will offer more than just a riveting four hours of television. Their goal is to open the curtains on this largely hidden trade and effect real change for the women trapped in it.
A Global Industry
The project was conceived in part by Trevor Walton, senior vice president for original movies at Lifetime, who says he initially knew very little about the global industry that enslaves an estimated 800,000 women and girls worldwide; almost 20,000 in the United States alone. He says he learned about the problem after hearing a speech by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"I realize that we're all spectacularly ignorant of what has been going on," he said. "I've heard for a number of years of men going on trips for cheap easy sex. I certainly didn't want to do a big finger-wagging piece, but I thought there's a lot of information we can convey. It became more and more apparent that there was just a huge amount of information that wasn't reaching the American public."
The sex trafficking industry ensnares many women from countries in the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia and other impoverished nations around the world. The women are desperate to find work and a better life. Many respond to advertisements seeking nannies or waitresses in Western Europe or the U.S. and naively partner with traffickers who ferry them across borders and then take their passports and money. Others are sold to traffickers by their boyfriends or husbands.
The women are then put to work as sex slaves, servicing dozens of men each week, their pay going into the pockets of the traffickers. The women are abused by both their clients and their traffickers and are terrified to escape or seek help for fear that they will be further penalized by police who see them as little more than prostitutes or that their family members will be attacked back home.
Breaking the Silence
"Breaking the silence is always the first step towards positive social change," Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Equality Now, said. "I don't think people quite understand the magnitude of trafficking in persons and its impact on so many lives."
The American public does know something about the global trade in women and girls. A poll sponsored by Lifetime ahead of the movie's premier found that 55 percent believe trafficking is a major problem in the United States, although 74 percent did not know that international marriage brokers operate in the U.S. legally.
Bipartisan legislation was recently passed in both the House and Senate that would offer mail order brides greater protection, including the ability to access the criminal histories of their potential partners before they arrive in the U.S.
In an effort to build greater protection for enslaved women, Lifetime and other advocates are also supporting legislation that would give provide for higher penalties for those caught trafficking as well as better services for women once they are freed.
Toby Graff, Lifetime's vice president for public affairs, says the cable channel worked very closely with nonprofit groups that deal with women on the ground to both develop a realistic film and build education and advocacy strategies to promote awareness of the issue.
Activist Celhia de Lavarene worries that the film will gloss over aspects of the trade in its dramatization and be full of inaccuracies. De Laverne worked in Bosnia and Liberia running raids on brothels with local police.
She says that she could often tell if a woman was enslaved just by "looking into her eyes and seeing that she wasn't free." Now, the activist is launching a nonprofit with offices in the countries where women are typically ensnared in the trade.
De Lavarene is skeptical that the film could possibly deter the sex traders or inform potential victims.
Nevertheless, she said, "If it does raise awareness, it will potentially funnel more money into nonprofits fighting the trade. And it's enough that we're talking about it."
Alexandra Poolos is the former managing editor of Women's eNews. She has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Wall Street Journal and Newsday and is currently on a fellowship to study politics at Columbia University.
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