s a journalist I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been to a refugee camp in Sudan, an orphanage overflowing with “throw-away” kids in China, and a home for AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe. Nothing, however, prepared me for what I saw in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India: cages that held little girls—some as young as 5 years old—smuggled in from Nepal.
That’s when I first learned about the global child sex trade and began to write about it. On that trip I interviewed a young teenager whose boyfriend had drugged her and sold her to a madam.
The stories did not get prettier. In Pattaya, Thailand, I remember a banner hanging over an intersection in the red-light district proclaiming this was “boys town.” In most areas where child sex slavery flourishes, girls are for sale, but this particular area specialized in young boys.
I’ve stood at border crossings into Cambodia and Myanmar, knowing that children were trafficked across the border along with cattle, chickens, and rice.
The real shock was to learn that child trafficking is not just across the globe but also across the street. The problem has grown so bad in my own city of Orlando, Florida, that we now have a human trafficking coalition as well as a prayer group that focuses specifically on the problem.
Child sex trafficking is everywhere, in every country including the United States. In most places around the world it’s possible to buy a child—for the night or for life. It is global organized crime.
The numbers are staggering. Each year more than 1 million additional children—many as young as 4, and almost all under age 16—enter the sex trade. In fact, human trafficking is the third most lucrative illegal industry in the world, after guns and drugs. You can sell a gun or drug only once, but you can sell a child again and again.
If that makes you angry, as it does me, please know there is something that can be done to stop the traffic.
Putting a stop to child trafficking involves rescue, aftercare, and prevention. Rescue is one of the most dangerous ministries on earth. Who wants to go undercover into a brothel and pull out children—particularly when the children really don’t want to leave?
“It’s easy to rescue kids who want to be rescued,” a woman who does rescues once told me. “These kids don’t want to be rescued.” The children are actually so brainwashed and traumatized that they think of their captors as their protectors.
Another area of practical need is caring for children who’ve been rescued as well as those who are at-risk for trafficking. Imagine the aftercare needed for a little girl who has been raped 10 to 15 times a night by different customers, night after night.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been working to stop trafficking for more than 15 years—on both international and local levels. The church, for example, is part of Rescue and Restore, a coalition of nonprofit organizations under the direction of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is committed to eradicating this international inhumanity. The Women’s Ministries Department at the Adventist Church’s world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, helped to spearhead the church’s involvement in this coalition.
Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) workers in many places around the world work with at-risk and rescued children. In Thailand, for example, where there are an estimated 800,000 prostitutes below the age of 18 (200,000 of whom are age 12 or under), ADRA/Thailand launched a program called Keep Girls Safe. It reduces the risk of underage girls from being commercially sexually exploited, and includes safe houses where at-risk girls can live and receive vocational-skills training. The safe houses also establish girls’ clubs, raise community awareness, and more.
Other ADRA outreaches in Brazil and Nepal work with street children and poor rural children who are all high risk for trafficking and child labor.
Not a New Venture
Saving women from prostitution is not a new avenue of ministry for the Adventist Church. In the 1880s health reform pioneer John Harvey Kellogg founded an organization in Chicago called Settlement House, under the umbrella of the American Medical Missionary College he established in that city. Although not involved with stopping human trafficking per se, among its various humanitarian outreaches Settlement House did help prostitutes begin a new life.
“Each evening pairs of mature nurses left the Settlement House to work among Chicago’s streetwalkers, whom they encouraged to turn from lives of prostitution,” writes Richard W. Schwarz in his book John Harvey Kellogg, M.D. “The Life Boat Rescue Service, as Kellogg called it, put the prostitutes who responded in private Christian homes for a period. Kellogg contended that only such an environment could accomplish any lasting reformation in their lives.”*
Prevention and Awareness
To truly make a dent in the global crime of child trafficking, help must be provided for children already ensnared and measures put in place to keep others from being trafficked. The most effective ways to cut off the international child trafficking pipeline are through prevention and awareness. If government, church, and humanitarian organizations can keep kids from being trafficked in the first place, the supply will dry up.
Most children get lured into trafficking because they don’t know any better. They believe the traffickers when they tell them they’re going to be models or waitresses in the big city.
Similarly, their parents may also be unaware, particularly if they’re illiterate or live in remote rural areas that traffickers target. Respectable-looking people show up in a village and say they have money to educate the girls at faraway schools. “Just sign here,” they tell the parents, who never see their daughters again.
Whenever children get awareness training, the rate of trafficking plummets. There’s just not enough training being done, and often it isn’t available in languages spoken by children who are most at risk.
Education and awareness can make a huge dent in the international sex slavery industry because it cuts off the pipeline. Awareness is not the only answer, but it’s a large part of the answer. It’s something that can be done—now—to prevent more little children from being enslaved.
They Belong to Him
I’ve often thought of the many children I’ve seen as I’ve traveled—children whose names I’ll never know but who are known to God, who created them. As I was flying home from hailand a few years ago, I felt Him tell me, “I paid a high price for these children, and the price I paid for them is higher than any price anyone could ever pay. Therefore, I own them. They belong to Me.”
We have an opportunity to help children who are enslaved to trafficking and to prevent many more from being taken. What better way to let them know that they do belong to Him?
*Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M.D. (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Md., 2006), p. 173.
Diana Scimone is a journalist living in Orlando, Florida.