Stolen Lives: Trafficking of Women

March 4, 2005
Sharon Wilke

Gathering for what moderator Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program, called a “grim subject,” a group of experts met in the Kennedy School Forum today to discuss what can be done to halt the trafficking of women and girls worldwide.

“Our estimates show that about 800,000 women and children are trafficked across borders every year, and this number doesn’t include internal trafficking,” said John Miller, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State. “It ranges from sex slavery to farm slavery — you name it. This comes as a shock to many people who think: didn’t slavery end with the Civil War?”

Asked why people should care about the issue, Miller claimed, “It’s an affront to human dignity, for starters. There’s also the public health toll, particularly with HIV and AIDS in the sex slavery business.”

There is also the brutality and loss for the women and girls lured or tricked into sex jobs, said Donna Hughes, chair of the Women Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island.

“The first thing they lose is their freedom. Then they’re subjected to all forms of violence to make them submit,” she said.

Hughes said another cost to a society where trafficking happens — and the panelists were quick to note that it happens in almost every country — is a compromised rule of law.

“In order for trafficking to succeed, there’s corruption. Some official from the government or the police is involved,” she said. “And when the rule of law is compromised, all of society suffers.”

Panelist Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the United Nations, spoke about a slightly different topic, one that received widespread attention last year: the sexual exploitation and rape of women and girls by UN peacekeepers.

“In the past, the attitude on this has been, ‘boys will be boys,’” she said. “But someone who rapes is not a boy. Someone who exploits women is not a boy. There’s a word for these kinds of people, but ‘boy’ is not it.”

Asked why it took the UN so long to respond, Holl Lute shook her head in frustration and said, “The UN will have to account for why it has taken so long to deal with this problem. But words are not enough.”

Hughes said that putting pressure on politicians is a critical step in the effort to bring about an end to the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Miller added that educating people in villages is also necessary, as is targeting rich countries, which fuel the sex tourism industry. Other suggestions included sensitizing local police to the issues and making training mandatory for peacekeepers.

Lastly, said Hughes, is for everyone to look around, no matter where they are. “Think globally, but act locally,” she said. “You don’t have to go into the Congo or Nepal. The problem is right here.”

Photo on home page, this page (top): Justin Ide/Harvard News Office
Photo this page (bottom): Greg Wilson/Institute of Politics

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Forum attendees image

Forum attendees watch a video of Anuradha Koirala, founder and director of Maiti Nepal, an organization that works to prevent the trafficking of girls.

Forum panelists

Swanee Hunt, Donna Hughes, Jane Holl Lute, John Miller