Editor’s note: Sex trafficking is the third largest underground economy in the world. More than two million women and children are sold, tricked, or forced by poverty into sexual slavery or indentured servitude every year. Of these, more than 50,000 are brought into the United States.

Despite the horrifying numbers, the issue of trafficking can seem remote — until its victims are threatened and killed in your own city. Such tragedies are occurring here in Seattle: In 1995, Susana Remerata Blackwell, brought from the Phillipines to Seattle as a mail-order bride, was shot to death by her purchaser/husband, Timothy Blackwell. Last year, 20-year-old Anastasia Solovieva King, who was brought to Seattle from the former Soviet Union as a mail-order bride, was found dead in a shallow grave. Her husband has been charged with first-degree murder.

On November 3, the conference “Trafficking of Women and Children: Challenges and Solutions” was held at the University of Washington to educate the public and develop a plan of action to fight trafficking at the local and regional levels. Representative Velma Veloria (D-Seattle), who initiated the organizing of the conference, is working with Senator Jeri Costa (D-Marysville), and Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), to introduce a bill into the Washington state legislature that is modeled on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Leslie Wolfe, president of The Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, DC, is a leader in the fight against trafficking, and educates lawmakers and the public about the issue. She was the keynote speaker for the Seattle conference. Her words are printed here.

Fighting the War on Sexual Trafficking of Women and Girls
University of Washington
November 3, 2001
by Leslie Wolfe

It is a great honor and delight to be here with you for this groundbreaking conference. I am especially honored to join my colleague, friend and hero, Representative Velma Veloria, on this podium and thank her for including me and the Center for Women Policy Studies in this incredible event, and for her new proposed legislation on trafficking. I also want to recognize the leadership of [Washington state] Senators Jeri Costa and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who remain stalwarts in the struggle to bring these issues to public debate.

I come to you today from the other Washington, a city on high alert and fearful of what tomorrow will bring. I, too, am fearful — but my fear is for our movement for women’s human rights in the United States and around the world in the context of this new reality and the new war on terrorism that now is the central focus of United States policy, both foreign and domestic.

But today, we are talking about a different war on terrorism — the one we have been fighting many years, against the oppression of women and girls as exemplified by the horrors of sexual trafficking. In this most appalling violation of their most basic human rights, thousands upon thousands of our young sisters live in unspeakable conditions of sexual slavery throughout the world — and in our country.

This we cannot permit. And we are the ones to stop it.

My sisters, we all are links in the golden chain of the global feminist revolution that is changing the institutions that govern our lives. We are guided and inspired by the earth shaking UN conferences — from the Vienna Human Rights Conference to the Beijing Women’s Conference — at which women’s groups forced governments to take the great leap forward to recognize that women’s rights are human rights and essential to the sustainable development of all our nations.

I am excited to be here to learn from all of you in our sessions throughout the day. And I promise you that the Center for Women Policy Studies will take up the plan of action you develop here today and continue to focus our laser beam of policy analysis and advocacy on this national emergency, to bring it to our national network of women state legislators, to our colleagues in Congress, and to the State Department.

But first, I must share with you my own — and the Center’s — guiding principles. I spoke of global feminist revolution because I do believe that we truly are revolutionaries — in the best possible sense of the word. And that best possible sense comes from Che Guevara, who said: “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

And from my dear friend Bella Abzug, who left us a powerful legacy of activism and courage. She reminded the world at Beijing that we are not simply trying to join the mainstream — because it is a polluted stream. As Bella said: “We want to change the stagnant waters into a fresh flowing stream, making it safe and life enhancing for everyone.” And that is what you are doing here today.

We, dear sisters and brothers, are the lucky ones. Because we have the luxury to be here today. Most of our sisters worldwide and in our own country do not. But we are here today because we work for them. And we know that women in this world are all in the same boat. Some of us — by virtue of our race, ethnicity, immigration status, class, sexual orientation, marital status, disability status — are in first class cabins, some of us are working in the kitchen, some of us are locked in the cargo hold, enslaved. Most of us have never had the chance to be the captain. But we will be.

You already know a great deal about sexual trafficking of women and girls but I believe we must always reflect on what it means for us and for our sisters worldwide.

Because this is our problem, in every part of our nation. Between 50,000 and 100,000 women — the data are far from accurate — are trafficked into the United States each year, primarily from impoverished communities in Asia and eastern Europe, but also from Africa and Latin America. In 1998, more than 200 international mail order bride businesses operated in the United States, bringing up to 6,000 women each year into this country for marriage to American men — and many end up as battered, or murdered, wives.

Sexual trafficking of women and girls across borders, within countries, across state lines, is a big business that generates enormous profit for the traffickers.

Trafficked women and girls are forced into prostitution and sexual slavery that takes a variety of forms — from virtual imprisonment in brothels to participation in the production of pornography to commercial or exploitative marriages, often as mail order brides. And women who are trafficked for other forms of exploitative labor — as domestic workers in private homes and as laborers in sweatshops — also are subject to sexual violence as well.

Sexual trafficking is a disease of our patriarchal society, the quintessential violation of women’s autonomy and human rights, and the ultimate reflection of our status as the property of men and as creatures who exist primarily to service men’s sexual desire.

There is no analogy that truly reflects the underlying truth of this trade — not the analogy to the trade in illegal commodities such as drugs and guns, not the analogy to illegal immigration for work and economic betterment which brought so many of our grandparents and parents to the United States to create a better life.

No. Trafficking in women and girls is the soul of our oppression.

Trafficking in women often is fueled by the extreme poverty that many women and children face and is more common in countries and communities where women lack viable economic opportunities — in large part because of their traditionally lower status in law and custom. The traffickers make an appealing and persuasive case, therefore, that other countries offer better opportunities.

And it is a clear case of gendered racism. In fact, racist and sexist stereotypes drive international trafficking patterns across borders — because men, euphemistically called “the customers,” express preferences for women or girls they define as more appealing. In the United States, for example, this often translates into a preference for women from Asia and eastern Europe — because men think they will be more passive and subservient than those dreadfully liberated American women. In fact, this racist and sexist stereotype is a key selling point in the U.S. for mail order brides.

Further, men who participate in sex tourism in various countries — traveling on vacation to “try” prostitutes in other countries — demand younger and younger girls — virgins — because they believe that they can thereby avoid HIV infection, or even be cured of AIDS by sexual contact with a virgin. And so, we find young girls forced into the sex trade, infected with HIV by these men, and then tossed aside by the traffickers and brothel owners when they are sick and therefore useless as money makers.

But young women do not know any of this when they are first recruited by traffickers — who employ a variety of appalling deceptive and often coercive strategies to lure desperately poor young women and their families with false promises of money, jobs, and better opportunities abroad.

And severe economic hardship beyond anything we can imagine in this country may encourage families to accept the traffickers’ false promises and send their daughters away — for the survival of the family. This tactic works especially well for desperately poor families because traffickers lie to women and their families about the work the women will be offered. Traffickers present fake employment contracts and false visas and some go so far as to marry their victims — either as a way to recruit them or as a way to protect themselves and their victims from prosecution for illegal immigration. But these contracts, visa, and marriages always are a sham.

Once in the United States, women and girls find themselves trapped into sexual slavery without money or legal help to escape. They are victims of terrorism and subjugation. Just try to imagine it.

Imagine that you have left home for a new country and new economic opportunity. You have been brought to this new country by a man or men you fear or even trust, to work and earn money for your family — only to find yourself imprisoned in a brothel or sweat shop. Imagine your terror: you cannot speak the language; you fear the local police, who may be complicit in the trafficking; and you legitimately fear arrest, imprisonment, and deportation to your home country, where you likely will be ostracized because of the sexual nature of your exploitation.

The nature and extent of sexual trafficking in this country are reflected in a few cases that have hit the newspapers:

For example, after they were promised good paying restaurant jobs in the United States, a group of Thai women were forced into prostitution upon their arrival in New York. A group of Mexican teenage women were told that they were going to jobs as waitresses, landscapers, child care and elder care workers — but they were held in sexual slavery upon their arrival in Florida and the Carolinas — and threatened with harm to themselves and their families if they resisted.

A syndicate of smugglers and pimps brought hundreds of young Asian women — some as young as thirteen — into the United States and forced them to work as prostitutes in brothels, where they lived in bondage until their so-called “contracts” were paid off. These young women, who also believed the traffickers’ false promises of economic opportunity, not only were trafficked into the United States. They also were trafficked across state lines within this country — sent to other brothels in at least twelve other states and the District of Columbia. Why? Because their so-called clients “got tired of the same women,” according to the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the case against the syndicate. This case is not unique — similar gangs have been charged in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and the victims have been women from both Asia and Latin America.

What has our federal government done so far?

There is good news and, of course, bad news. First, some of the good news is reflected in the cases I have just mentioned, because the FBI and prosecutors at least are arresting and charging some traffickers. And last year, the Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, Public Law 106-386, the “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000” — an omnibus bill that includes both the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act and the new “Trafficking Victims Protection Act.”

The new law requires our government to produce annual reports on trafficking by countries that receive foreign assistance from the United States, to create an interagency task force to monitor and combat trafficking, to protect and assist victims of trafficking, to establish minimum standards and provide assistance to other countries to meet these standards for elimination of trafficking, to take action against governments that fail to meet the standards and to strengthen prosecution of traffickers, for example. This is a key victory.

But I am reminded of what our sister/friend and hero Shirley Chisholm said when she was a Member of Congress — and one of our most outspoken women’s rights activists in the Congress: “The law cannot do the major part of the job of winning equality for women. Women must do it for themselves. They must become revolutionaries.”

As with all anti-discrimination laws, we must use this imperfect statute as our great weapon for change.

For example, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed a powerful commitment to ending sexual trafficking when he announced the release of the State Department’s first report on trafficking in persons, which the new law required the Department to produce. While this does demonstrate the law’s importance as a weapon, we should note — as our sisters of Human Rights Watch pointed out — that the report was five weeks late, it glosses over the role of official complicity and corruption in the persistence of trafficking, it does not focus enough on forced labor trafficking, and it does not report sufficiently on how countries are protecting the women and children who have been trafficked.

Funding is insufficient; only $30 million was included in the House passed 2002 Foreign Operations appropriations bill, for example. So we must fight to ensure that our government commits sufficient funds to transforming rhetoric into action to end trafficking.

And we also must ask: how strong is the interagency task force? How is the State Department working with the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services on the mandated interagency task force to fight trafficking IN the United States?

And, since the United States is defined by the State Department as a “destination country,” how will the crossing of state lines within our country be addressed? Will the State Department and domestic departments make the war on trafficking a top priority in the current context of the war on terrorism?

These questions bring us, at last, to our own mandate. We must force the issue by all means and methods available to us.

I know you will agree that our focus as policy makers and advocates should be on protecting women who have been trafficked into the United States. We must not allow our criminal and immigration laws to be used to punish women as criminals and we must prevent their deportation. We must ensure that women get the help they need to escape.

Indeed, in the United States, despite federal and state opposition to sexual trafficking, we also prosecute women who are arrested for prostitution as felons — and often deport women who have been trafficked — without regard for the circumstances that led the women to this life. This creates a serious legal and policy conflict that must be resolved.

I think we must recognize that existing laws in the United States, as in many other countries, are inadequate to punish traffickers and to protect and help the women and girls who are their prey. Then, we can move on to develop creative responses.

And we must continue our advocacy at the federal level. For example, we can put the pressure on our government to implement existing international agreements in our states and nation, particularly the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of Others and the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children — which supplements the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 2000. The United States (and 80 other countries) signed the Protocol last December. We now must ensure Senate ratification.

And while we are at it, please keep urging the U.S. Senate to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — CEDAW — now that the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee is no longer a stumbling block!

At the state level, you can do what state legislator Alma Adams did in North Carolina: introduce a resolution endorsing CEDAW, and urge the Senate to ratify it. Alma’s bill actually passed!

We also can and must make our voices heard in Congress and the Administration to insist that in this post-September 11 era, we maintain a high level of alert and attention to attacking the continuing and increasing sexual trafficking of women and girls. We must urge our federal government to focus on punishing traffickers and governments that support or allow them to flourish — even if those governments are our allies — while increasing our assistance to women and girls who are suffering these horrific abuses of their human rights.

Insist that the Bush Administration implement the “Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000” with extreme vigor and funding and commitment within the United States as well as against other nations.

In addition, insist on increased funding under the “Violence Against Women Act of 2000” for programs nationwide that protect immigrant women and children trapped in exploitative, commercial and/or abusive marriages — including mail order brides. Indeed, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which the current law reauthorized and expanded, for the first time allowed battered immigrant women to apply for permanent resident status for themselves and their children without the cooperation or assistance of their husbands.

And we must continue to find creative ways to use other federal laws as well — including such ancient statutes as the 1948 Mann Act, which is now used as the basis for current federal prosecution of traffickers who transport women across state lines or U.S. borders for illegal sex work. For example, in U.S. v. Winters, the defendant beat and raped a woman he picked up hitchhiking and then forced her into prostitution at a migrant labor camp so that he could receive the profits. He did the same thing to a second woman. He was convicted under the Mann Act for transporting the women across state lines for interstate commerce to engage in prostitution, and the conviction was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Finally, you can urge your state attorney general and prosecutors to use three types of state criminal statutes currently on the books to prosecute some traffickers right away. These are laws that criminalize involuntary servitude, promotion of prostitution, and forced or commercial marriages. Some states, for example, can use statutes prohibiting prostitution and the promotion of prostitution to prosecute traffickers instead of the women and girls they coerced into prostitution. In several states, it is a felony offense to use threat or force or intimidation to compel a person into prostitution and to profit from another’s prostitution.

However, such laws do not cover all forms of trafficking and do not offer protections for trafficked women and girls — or provide the services they need so desperately.

Here is what the Center has proposed — at minimum — most of which is in Velma’s proposed legislation!

We recommend that efforts to address sexual trafficking at the state level focus on criminalizing the activities of the traffickers with appropriately harsh punishments. Each state should prohibit all forms of trafficking and should prohibit traffickers’ assertion of the woman’s alleged consent to be trafficked to be used as a defense.

We also propose that each state legislature mandate creation of a commission of experts — specifically include advocates for refugee and immigrant women and providers of domestic violence and sexual assault services.

We propose that you pass legislation that implements and strengthens the new federal law at the state level — just as Washington led in the 1970s in passing a state educational equity law that implemented and strengthened the federal Title IX prohibition of sex discrimination in education. And finally, we urge you to ensure protection from prosecution and deportation for any and all trafficked women and girls and for funding for a range of services for women and girls who have been brought to our country under such horrific conditions. Let us welcome and support these sisters with protection and well-funded programs that will speed their recovery from the horrors inflicted upon them. These programs should include all forms of health care services, housing, education and training, and personal, emotional support from women’s groups in the community.

We share your commitment to finding ways to respond to the horrors that women and girls face in the United States and around the world. We have both a moral and a legal obligation to eliminate these crimes from our states and nation. Together we can truly save the lives and spirits of thousands of young women and girls, and lift our own spirits as well.

I remind you in conclusion of Bella Abzug’s spirit and commitment as we go forth to act both locally and globally. She reminded us to “never underestimate the importance of what we are doing here. Never hesitate to tell the truth. And never, ever give in — or give up.”