Written by Mary Welch Wednesday, January 27 2010
Atlanta isn’t shy about tooting its civic horn. City officials and the business community are quick to make public relations hay anytime a new poll comes out with a positive ranking on its quality of life or business climate.
But not this time. There is one ranking that should shame every Georgian. Atlanta ranks as one of the world’s leading cities in the trafficking of women and children. Every day in this city, between 200 to 300 children and teens are on the streets, being sold for sex.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin shone a light on this horrible situation, and civic groups and businesses rallied around to put an end to the exploitation of women and children in Atlanta and throughout the world.
“Atlanta is one of the leading cities in the trafficking of women and children,” says Stephanie Davis, executive director of Georgia Women for Change. “I think the last count was that we were 13th in the world – in the world! We’re one of the leading cities in human trafficking for the same reasons why we’re one of the leading business cities – good transportation system, mobile population, lots of money. There is simply no excuse for this.”
Under Franklin, the city and the Atlanta Women’s Agenda joined a consortium of law enforcement and community outreach leaders to take action against the situation. The group started its “Dear John” campaign aimed at educating the public about the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
“Up until then, I don’t think people in Atlanta thought about it,” says Davis, who led the city’s effort to halt the problem. “And, even if they did, they wouldn’t think they could help solve the problem. We wanted to get the message out that this is happening; that this is not tolerable; it is everyone’s problem; and everyone is part of the solution.”
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, with the total annual revenue for trafficking in persons estimated to be between $5 billion and $9 billion. The Council of Europe puts it even higher. Saying that the situation has reached “epidemic proportions over the past decade,” the council puts the global annual market at about $42.5 billion.
An estimated 600,000 to 820,000 men, women, and children [are] trafficked across international borders each year, according to the U.S. State Department. Approximately 70 percent are women and girls, and up to 50 percent are minors.
There were 1,229 human trafficking incidents in the United States from January 2007 to September 2008, says the U.S. Department of Justice. Of these, 83 percent were sex trafficking cases.
A report conducted by the University of Pennsylvania noted that anywhere from 100,000 up to 300,000 American children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation at any given time.
Sadly, Atlanta is a leader in this exploitation.
The hope is that city also can become the leader in stopping it. Civic groups, churches, and businesses are rallying to the cause. LexisNexis has made human trafficking one of its philanthropic focuses.
In 2008, LexisNexis partnered with the U.S. National Human Trafficking Resource Center to develop a national database of social service providers for the center’s hotline.
In Southeast Asia, LexisNexis partnered with leading anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations that are associated with the United Nations NGO and taught technical skills to the shelter’s staff. The company also created an online resource center for attorneys who work with human trafficking victims.
LexisNexis collaborated with the American Bar Association to support a training institute on civil remedies for victims. The institute trained lawyers from six countries and across the United States.
Wyndham Hotel Group makes hundreds of free hotel rooms available for trafficking victims in emergency situations. Microsoft has worked with law enforcement and child protection agencies to conduct training on computer-related crimes involving the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Soroptimist is an organization of business and professional women working to improve the lives of women and girls and local communities throughout the world. The organization has launched a major campaign aimed at raising awareness about the devastating practice of sex trafficking. Soroptimist club members place cards about sex trafficking in highly visible locations including police stations, women's centers, hospitals, and legal aid societies.
In addition, the organization is undertaking a number of projects that directly and indirectly help victims and potential victims. These projects provide direct aid to women and girls, thus giving them the economic tools and skills to achieve financial empowerment and independence.
Zonta International is a 90-year-old organization operating in 67 countries devoted to improving the status of women worldwide. Under the direction of Lorraine Chilvers, the Zonta Club of Buckhead , in Atlanta, has thrown its weight to the issue.
“We met with law officials and learned that even six year olds are used for prostitution,” she says. “These pimps go to malls, railroad stations, schools ‒ and look for girls. They are nice to them and help them get a room. The girl suddenly has friends and a protector, maybe something she didn’t have at home. And, then it becomes, ‘Now pay your own way.’ Often it becomes violent; often the girl starts doing drugs – either because she’s given them or it’s the only way she can cope with her situation.”
Zonta is working “first and foremost” to educate its members and the community. “You have to have awareness before you can do anything like fund-raising,” Chilvers says.
Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson is executive director of Street GRACE, a nondenominational organization of churches dedicated to teaming up with public, private, and social sectors to abolish child sex slavery and exploitation in Atlanta.
The group has a five-pronged attack to the problem. The first is awareness and advocacy. Second is prayer. Third is to mobilize the church community.
“So many of us in the faith-based community have passion, but we may not be as effective as we could be. We often are in silos. To be effective, we have to galvanize the resources of the churches to where we can be most effective at the moment. Sometimes it’s lobbying, sometimes it might be bringing people together to buy a van,” DeLuca-Johnson says.
The fourth action is mentoring at-risk children and at-risk communities.
“We have men who go out and play basketball with the children of incarcerated adults,” DeLuca-Johnson says. “One positive adult influence can change the life of a child and prevent them from being at risk and maybe running away.”
The fifth is restoration. “We have to work with the system and other organizations to work with these children to restore their lives and help heal them.”
It is more difficult than people might think, Chilvers says.
“After you get a young girl off the street and into a rehabilitation house, you would think they would welcome it,” she says. “But they all too often run away. They don’t know what normal is. They don’t know about school, and it’s difficult. They’re afraid their pimps will come after them and it’ll be easier if they just go back.”
Often, Chilvers says, a key is to connect the person to their emotions, which often have been deeply buried. “We have found that it helps if they work with horses so they have an emotional connection. Yoga often works as well because it takes away the stress of their lives.”
All involved say the laws must be changed to reflect the fact that these young girls and children are victims, not criminals.
“Every night there are a couple hundred girls arrested for prostitution,” says Davis. “These girls are 14, 16, 17 years old. Instead of being taken to a safe house where they can get treatment, they are charged with prostitution and taken to jail or a halfway house. They’re back on the streets within hours.”
A bill is going to be introduced into the Georgia Senate that will make 16 the legal age for prostitution. “We wanted it to be 18 but we were told it wouldn’t pass,” says Davis. “Right now, we’ll take 16 because a girl can get married in the state at 16. But, if it passes, a 15-year-old who gets arrested will no longer be considered a criminal.”
Another agenda is for the state to hold the adult entertainment industry accountable for the secondary effects of their business by enacting a $5 adult entertainment surcharge specifically to fund services for minors who have been commercially sexually exploited.
“There is so much to do,” says Davis. “We have to make it harder for johns to find these girls – and boys. Craig’s List is a huge problem. A large percentage of johns find these kids on Craig’s List.”
These organizations desperately believe that with more awareness, more action can take place. “I speak to organizations, and they are unaware that the housekeeper next door may, in fact, be kidnapped and force to work for very low wages against her will,” says Chilvers. “Or that the young girl on the street may be a runaway. Once they realize it, they start thinking. And then is when the action starts.”
Mary Welch is a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dawson Times, Plan Your Meeting magazine, and Atlanta Business magazine. Previously, she held many positions with Leader Publishing, including editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman, editor of Business to Business magazine, and editor of Catalyst magazine. As editor of Business to Business, she assigned, edited, and conceptualized a series that was awarded Silver in the 2005 GAMMA Awards for Best Series. Welch was a reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle for eight years and freelanced for publications including Glamour, Advertising Age, South, Georgia Trend, and Oz. From 2000 to 2003, she served as vice president of media relations for Bank of America, during which time she authored Forever Green: A History and Hope of the American Forest with Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.