Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Its victims are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex or forced labor. They are young children, teenagers, men and women. Trafficking in persons occurs throughout the world, including in each of the countries in which The Junior League operates—the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. And contrary to popular belief in the U.S.—does does not necessarily involve moving persons across state lines.

Many victims of human trafficking are forced to work in prostitution or the sex entertainment industry, but trafficking also occurs in forms of labor exploitation in urban, suburban, and rural areas and its victims include domestic servants, restaurant staff, hotel employees, factory workers and agricultural laborers.

Human trafficking is both pervasive and profitable. Current estimates are that there are 20-30 million slaves worldwide and that 80% of slave trafficking is for sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates profits of $32 billion every year. Of that number, $15.5 billion is made in industrialized countries.

The challenges facing us in eradicating human trafficking are many and complex, due in part to deep cultural and economic factors that fuel this epidemic. Junior Leagues and Junior League State Public Affairs Committees (SPACs) began researching the issue of human trafficking over ten years ago. Early efforts focused on understanding the issue and educating League members. The New Jersey SPAC led these efforts at the Association level early on by presenting information to the delegates at AJLI Annual Conferences.

Junior Leagues and SPACs have chosen to focus their efforts in two primary areas: Raising public awareness and advocating the passage of legislation that addresses issues ranging from penalizing traffickers to protecting children and teenagers who become victims.

SPACS have, by virtue of their statewide mandates, taken the lead in legislative efforts.

Reflecting Michigan’s standing as one of the five worst states in the country for human trafficking, the Michigan State Council of Junior Leagues has made raising awareness of human trafficking a key focus for the past six years. In the last year, MSC has been a strong presence in Lansing as the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate have over 20 pieces of anti-trafficking legislation at various stages in the legislative process, many of which are simply awaiting final votes once the legislature returns for business after the summer recess and August primary election. A number of these pieces of legislation have been directly influenced by the work of MSC and Junior League members and MSC’s lobbyist in Lansing. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette partnered with MSC, holding a series of town hall events around the state to educate the community about human trafficking and steps that ordinary citizens can take to get involved in their own communities.

The Junior Leagues of New York State Public Affairs Committee has pursued a legislative agenda since 2006. In the  2012-2013 and 2013-2014 legislative sessions, NYSPAC joined the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition to advocate for the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA), which seeks to address child sexual abuse and exploitation by increasing accountability for buyers and traffickers, prevent re-victimization of trafficking victims in the justice system, and close any gaps and loopholes from the 2007 NYS Human Trafficking law and the 2008 Safe Harbor Law that deal with how prostituted minor children are treated in the justice system.

In addition to logging over 100 hours of lobby visits and meetings and advocating for $20 million in the state budget for unfunded mandates in the Safe Harbor Law, NYSPAC’s  #peoplearenotforsale social media campaign was launched as a way to support the TVPJA and to raise awareness of trafficking in New York State. The campaign was picked up by other groups, and NYSPAC’s efforts were directly responsible for the signing on of 47 additional bill co-sponsors in Albany. (A gallery of photos of legislators holding up #peoplearenotforsale posters can be found here:

Legislative efforts are beginning to gain traction though efforts are still relatively recent. For example, it was only 14 years ago that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) made trafficking in persons a federal crime in the U.S. The TVPA was enacted to prevent human trafficking overseas, to protect victims and help them rebuild their lives in the U.S., and to prosecute traffickers in human beings and impose federal penalties. Prior to enactment of the TVPA, no comprehensive federal law existed to protect victims of trafficking or to prosecute their traffickers. The TVPA has been reauthorized and amended four times since 2000.

While public awareness efforts aimed both at the general public as well as at key stakeholder and gatekeeper groups such as law enforcement are where the majority of individual Leagues have focused to date, it has also been a fruitful focus area for the Junior Leagues of New Jersey State Public Affairs Committee. NJSPAC members are sought after as speakers by other New Jersey organizations on human trafficking education and awareness. NJSPAC has worked with the state legislature to improve access to information for victims of human trafficking, and has been particularly effective in convening stakeholders in the community to take legislative action and advocate for bills that have helped to earn New Jersey one of only two perfect scores on Polaris Project’s 2013 State Ratings of Human Trafficking Laws.

NJSPAC also participated in a letter-writing campaign to educate hotels in the state on human trafficking and co-chaired the Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (S.O.A.P.) Human Trafficking Outreach in the Meadowland Area in preparation for this year’s Super Bowl XLVIII. In support of the implementation of New Jersey’s Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, NJSPAC is working on an initiative to expand educational training for police chiefs across the state in 2015.

A great example of an ambitious initiative from an individual League comes from the Junior League of Tampa’s (JLT) anti-trafficking campaign called Since being launched in January, it has been presented to other members of the Junior Leagues of Florida State Public Affairs Committee as well as other SPACs around the country, including at a pre-conference workshop at AJLI’s Annual Conference in May. JLT is also having conversations with Florida’s Office of the Attorney General to adopt the campaign statewide, and is working to determine if the Abolish Movement can be scaled nationally to all Junior Leagues.

The campaign started with JLT, serving as the unifying voice for 100+ regional agencies, working closely with a team of advertising and communications professionals from Ad 2 (a national organization of young advertising, marketing and communication professionals) to create an integrated branding and marketing campaign set to kick off during Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January. The centerpiece of the guerilla marketing campaign – which used striking billboards, posters, shareable social media content and a website to create awareness about the Tampa Bay area’s role as a portal for sexual trafficking of minors – is a hard-hitting documentary called Too Close to Home. Developed in partnership with local PBS affiliate WEDU, Too Close to Home graphically documents the prevalence of human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area.

When the Stop Human Trafficking Committee of the Junior League of Portland (Oregon) was looking for a great way to spread awareness of commercial sexual exploitation of children in their city, the largest in Oregon, while advocating for survivors and creating community collaboration, it also turned to the power of film. Through funding from JLP and a grant from La Salle Preparatory School, the result was a gritty documentary called Waiting for the Light: Portland’s Sex Trafficking Crisis. By focusing on a subject that most people prefer not to think about—the sexual trafficking of children—JLP recognized that awareness is the key to dealing with the issue.

The Junior League of Birmingham, Michigan recently launched a six-week billboard campaign at a busy intersection in this central Michigan city with the message “It Happens Here. Let’s Stop It!” and information for victims seeking help. In addition to reaching victims, it is hoped that the message will reach people who may have noticed something off either in their neighborhood or with someone they know, and men who are either current or potential customers and remind them that these are victims—and they are someone’s daughter or son.

The Junior League of Birmingham, Alabama also is involved, responding to the fact that Birmingham’s location on Interstate 20 makes it a nexus route for human traffickers. JLB convened a community roundtable forum on the issue of human trafficking that featured representatives from the Alabama State Legislature, the FBI, the Alabama Fusion Center, and WellHouse, a nonprofit organization offering immediate shelter and transitional housing to women who have been trafficked, are prostituting, or otherwise sexually exploited.

Much of what is happening in individual Leagues and SPACs on human trafficking is being shared through networking activities that afford opportunities for Leagues to learn from one another and support one another’s efforts. For example, over 300 Junior League women are members of a Public Affairs Group on the AJLI website and engage in monthly conference calls discussing strategies and tactics on a wide range of issues and initiatives, including human trafficking. Recently, a separate Human Trafficking Group Share was launched by Leagues reflecting the growing interest in human trafficking specifically and it includes 95 members.

There are other League stories to tell (and we encourage Leagues to post them on AJLI’s Facebook page). The more League women – whether as members of Leagues, SPACS or as individuals – collaborate together, and share resources, and build on each other’s models, the more successful they will be in fighting this modern slavery.

In addition there are steps each of us can take as individuals. The New Jersey Coalition on Human Trafficking suggests the following actions:

  • Educate yourself, your family, your community, your place of worship about human trafficking.
  • Advocate for national and state policies and legislation directed toward abolishing trafficking.
  • Give time and money to organizations that fight trafficking and provide services to survivors.
  • Shop conscientiously by asking questions about a product’s source and choosing fair trade certified products when available

The preceding is the first in a series on The Junior League and the fight against sex trafficking. Stay tuned for the remainder of the series, spotlighting several of The Junior League members leading the first against trafficking: