A recent U.N. panel on human traffickingUNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The U.N. has held hearings and sessions on human trafficking many times before, where professional advocates and police authorities have offered evidence.

But an Oct. 22 gathering before an audience of several dozen, which included U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was different.

For the first time trafficking victims were invited to speak, reflecting the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ effort to promote a victim-centered approach.

One of the victims was Rachel Lloyd, who grew up in the United Kingdom. She survived forced sexual exploitation, which began after she quit school at 13 to care for her alcoholic mother. It led to a cycle of sexual abuse, drugs and prostitution that lasted through her teenage years.

After moving to New York, she founded GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which she said helped 279 young women escape prostitution last year. She also actively lobbied for New York State’s Safe Harbor Act for Sexually Exploited Youth, the country’s first law to end the persecution of child sex-trafficking victims.

"This is a big and significant step for the U.N., and my hope is that this is the beginning of some real and substantive action on this issue," Lloyd told Women’s eNews after delivering her testimony.

Three other survivors also spoke at the gathering–each from different corners of the globe, each with a very different ordeal to recount.

Different Stories, Common Theme

But there was one common theme: The official world often failed to see them as trafficking victims.

"One of the largest challenges that we have . . . is the lack of identification and the lack of recognition of our victim status," Lloyd told the gathering.

Charlotte Awino of Uganda told the panel about her eight-year imprisonment at the hands of Ugandan rebels, who kidnapped her and three dozen others from a boarding school when she was 14. Forced to march for days, she and other prisoners were "traumatized and often near death from beating and starvation."

Awino escaped at 22, having borne two children. She pointed out that often people in her position are viewed by authorities as being there voluntarily, mistaken for complicit terrorists rather than prisoners.

Buddhi Gurung of Nepal–the only male in the group–said his passport was confiscated when he answered a recruitment ad for work abroad. Instead, he was held for about a month in Amman, Jordan, then told by his supposed recruiters that he was going to work on a military base in Iraq. On the way there, a van in front of him carrying other trafficked Nepalis was ambushed and his 12 countrymen abducted. They were later killed, their beheadings broadcast over the Internet.

After serving 15 months at a U.S. base in Iraq, he was given his passport and sent home. He is currently suing the U.S. government. Although he may have looked like any immigrant worker, his circumstances did not match those of a voluntary worker. Instead of being sent to work in the U.S. for $500 per month as his recruiters had promised, he was brought to a war zone, paid a pittance and fed even less, he said.

Gurung and the families of the murdered Nepalis have taken the Houston-based defense contractor KBR, Inc. and Daoud and Partners, a Jordanian subcontractor, to federal court on human trafficking charges.

Forced Into Prostitution

Kikka Cerpa of Venezuela said that in 1992 she followed her boyfriend to New York City expecting a job as a nanny. Instead, he and his cousin forced her to "work off" her debt to the boyfriend by prostituting herself in his family’s brothel.

"The first night was the worst. I had to service 19 men. They lined up for the new girl," Cerpa told the panel. She said her "boyfriend" told her that if she turned to authorities for help she would be arrested and deported.

She said that police sometimes raided the brothel and demanded sex. At other times, police arrested her. But either way, no officer ever seemed to look at Cerpa as a potential crime victim.

Cerpa eventually escaped by marrying a customer. When he started beating her she sought refuge in a shelter for abused women, which steered her toward Sanctuary for Families, a New York nonprofit that assists abused women and their children. In 2007, Cerpa received the annual Susan B. Anthony Award from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women for her victim-advocacy work, which she continues to do while earning a living as a housekeeper.

Ruchira Gupta, a former BBC reporter who has spent the past 20 years working with prostitutes in India, many of whom are trafficked, moderated the panel.

In opening the session she offered her own example of public officials not recognizing trafficking victims as people in need of their help.

She said public health workers in Bombay try to prevent disease within brothels by giving out condoms, when official efforts would be better focused on helping to free the women in the brothels. Gupta was struck by the plight of these women when she first met them in the 1980s, women who had been sold into sex slavery in their teens or earlier. Her work has helped bring the issue to the forefront globally, and in September she received the 2009 Clinton Global Citizen Award from former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative foundation for her work.

More Concern Over Protecting Men

"Some of them actually told me, ‘If the brothel didn’t exist, where would we distribute the condoms?’" said Gupta, referring to the public health workers in Bombay. "They are more interested in protecting men from disease than protecting women and girls from the men."

The Office of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons presented a report on trafficking to the General Assembly on Oct. 23, the day after the hearings.

Human trafficking, it said, encompasses slavery, debt bondage, forced labor and sexual exploitation.

The Geneva-based International Labour Organization, or ILO, estimates that at least 12.3 million adults and children are being trafficked at any given time.

The majority of these people are women and girls forced into sexual slavery, according to the ILO and other agencies.

"There are millions out there who are still victims, many of whom have not been discovered," U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Joy Ngozi Ezeilo told the panel.

The key, she said, is giving visibility to victims, keeping track of those who go missing, offering them assistance once they’re rescued and making a commitment to eliminate trafficking in the first place.

Countries, she said, must also levy harsher punishment on traffickers and compensate victims for the time lost.

"It will be irresponsible if we fail to act. We are humans and we should not support inhuman action," Ezeilo said. "The slave trade has been abolished and we can’t accept that in our world today."

Journalist Theresa Braine covers international issues from her base in New York City.

For more information:

Girls Educational and Mentoring Services

Sanctuary for Families

Report of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, presented to the General Assembly on 23 October 2009 (pdf)

2009 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

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