I had only a faint idea of what human trafficking was when I walked into the New Life Center Foundation in early 2012. The NLCF is a rehabilitative center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for young girls who have survived abuse and exploitation. Many of them have been separated from their families, and many had been lured to and from surrounding countries under false promises of a job and a future.
The center’s director spent the afternoon educating us on the issue in Southeast Asia (and it’s not just Southeast Asia’s issue — in 2010, 26 percent of adult victims who were trafficked into the United States for exploitation of labor and body were from Thailand). I sat in the first row, listening with rapt attention and fighting back tears when a group of young girls from the center sang us some songs they had learned. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing volleyball with the girls, who played and laughed with us. It was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
I returned to the United States fired up about the issues of sexual violence and exploitation, and I worked to figure out where I fit in. I looked into Bay Area organizations such as Bay Area Women Against Rape and Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth and received my certification as a rape crisis counselor and advocate with a group of inspiring and like-minded individuals. But I felt helpless every time I hung up the crisis hotline phone with someone I wasn’t sure I had helped, and I knew these anti-trafficking, anti-whatever organizations as a whole felt the same, with funding and time and the human energy left before burning out into a sobbing mess being variable. The issue began to look insurmountable, and I could not believe more people did not know what was happening.
As the months passed, something miraculous began to happen. Jada Pinkett Smith shared her passion for the anti-trafficking movement and her new documentary project titled “Rape For Profit” with Katie Couric. At around the same time, Sliver opened in Berkeley with the promise of “promoting human health and empowering the fight against human trafficking around the world.” Greeks Against Sexual Assault was founded the month before, and a few months later, UC Berkeley student members of International Justice Mission stood for 27 hours on campus as part of a global anti-trafficking campaign. These developments were bolstered by the PBS release of “Half the Sky” and the success of Proposition 35, which increased criminal penalties against trafficking and sex slavery and passed into law with 81 percent of the vote. Amazing, right? I was witnessing a syncing up of human hearts realizing it is possible to change so many attitudes and beliefs about servitude and exploitation, about sexual violence and our role in preventing it all.
It went on, in fact, until “27 million modern-day slaves” became a buzz phrase, and millions upon millions of teenagers with red X’s on their hands photographed themselves to raise awareness of an issue that was — and is — rapidly reaching the pinnacle of prominence among the socially aware.
Big note: In no way is it upsetting that so many people are growing to realize that such a crime exists. My grandparents never knew that young girls were forced into prostitution along the Black Sea in Bulgaria, our homeland, until I told them. This awareness is key. And if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and celebrity endorsements are what is needed, great! We’ve got the people power!
But now I find myself watching how much I do and how strategically I do it. How much of our activism as young college students is easy, trendy awareness-raising through social media, and how much of it requires us to actually go out of our way? Actively making a difference can be as straightforward as having a conversation with your friends. Here’s a fun conversation topic: Lil Wayne’s music video for his song “Love Me” portrays women in cages and women writhing around his bed, existing with one sole purpose. These images and messages run rampant through TV shows, songs and even the words and phrases we use. Who hasn’t heard someone saying he or she raped that midterm? Advocacy starts here, with talking to people we know about the unconscious ways we promote exploitation.
I will readily admit human trafficking is quickly becoming trendy, but I believe it calls for far more of our effort than retweeting a statistic. Awareness-raising is vital, but it’s time to kick it up a notch. Advocacy doesn’t have to take you around the world: Your campus community and hometown are perfect places to keep an eye open for vulnerable individuals (organizations such as Oasis USA have TraffickFree Communities programs that offer guidance and resources) and even to volunteer your skills at one of the Bay Area’s many nonprofits. For more information on how you can take action, check out the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition’s 10/10/10 approach to tackling human trafficking by taking 10 minutes (10 mintues!) out of your day.
Ellie Bozmarova is a senior at UC Berkeley.