The numbers alone tell the story. 21 million people in the world are victims of human trafficking. 71% of human trafficking victims are women and girls. And when it comes to the commercial sex industry, which relies on human trafficking, 99% of modern slaves in the industry are women and girls.
July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. And sadly, the scourge of human trafficking is still very prevalent and very real.
But so is the work of The Junior League in combating human trafficking. From raising awareness and bringing stakeholders together, to providing shelter and helping survivors find homes, to advocating for survivors so they can live the life they choose to live.
We spoke with three Junior League leaders—Joni Flaherty, President of the Junior League of San Diego; Kielle Horton, President of the Junior League of Santa Barbara; and Jenay Iurato, member of the Junior League of Tampa, Florida Public Affairs Chair, and pro-bono advocate for human trafficking victims.
They offered a glimpse into what they are doing to combat human trafficking through The Junior League, why their Leagues decided to tackle this epidemic, and the realities that human trafficking survivors contend with.
Joni Flaherty—President, the Junior League of San Diego
As a border city, sex trafficking is San Diego’s second largest underground economy after drug trafficking. And we are on the FBI’s list of the top 13 cities in the country in terms of sex trafficking. So, it’s obviously very important to us.
On their Annual Human Trafficking Rally
We survey and assess what the needs are in our community. We sought input from our community partners, our lawmakers, and our membership within The Junior League and there was a need for a rally. We found that we needed something that attracted media attention, attracted the general public, and got people to understand the epidemic that is happening in our own backyard.
We thought a rally would be a great way to get different stakeholders to speak up and bring the message of this epidemic and how we can support our lawmakers and other stakeholders. We found that the top three places where trafficking occurs are churches, schools and parks.
This is not something that only affects certain communities. This is happening in suburban high schools and the church around the corner. No one is immune from human trafficking. This is a concern for the families in our community, including the mothers among our membership. We wanted to get the word out and the rally was a great way to do that.
This year, we conducted our fifth annual rally.
Kielle Horton, President of the Junior League of Santa Barbara
It’s a different day in terms of the way people wrap their minds around this as an issue that is happening locally, happening in our own backyard. We spent a significant amount of time determining the prevalence of human trafficking as a significant issue on the Central Coast and then had many discussions about the most critical needs of the community.
In terms of needs, housing and shelter were at the top of the list, followed closely by a serious need for community awareness and then finding placements for our foster youth, who are an extremely vulnerable population. A high majority of the most vulnerable kids being trafficked are runaways – youth who run from the system, a foster home, or those who are on the street with nowhere to go.
On how they made the S.A.F.E. House Shelter a reality
Once we had selected and voted in the JLSB’s new Focus Area of supporting our most at-risk young women and combating trafficking, we dug even deeper within the issues related to [commercial sexual exploitation of children] and presented several Signature Project options to our members, each that would make a significant impact to help eradicate trafficking in our area, support survivors of sex trafficking, or both.
Our members were extremely excited about taking on the most challenging and intimidating of all those options, which was to open up a shelter for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. There existed no housing option for them in our county at the time, yet we knew there were many survivors who desperately needed safe, rehabilitative housing. We knew it was going to take a ton of money, and we had no idea where the property was going to come from. No one had ever worked with the state of California to accomplish something like this under the new AB403 [California foster care reform] law.
But JLSB members are truly unstoppable…we faced challenge after challenge, setback after setback, but we kept pushing forward and re-strategizing to make this home a reality for the many deserving girls waiting to be placed there, looking to be given a chance to be rescued out of a life of trafficking once and for all. Our community came out in droves to support the effort…we raised almost all the money needed at our annual fundraiser within six days of voting this project through. Start to finish, the entire project took us 14 months. S.A.F.E. House Santa Barbara, our county’s first rehabilitative shelter for girls, opened at the end of May 2018 and filled with clients within the first few days of opening.
Jenay Iurato, sustainer of The Junior League of Tampa and volunteer pro bono attorney, with Justice Restoration Center, for human trafficking victims
On the biggest misperception of survivors of human trafficking
The first thing is that, whether it is a boy or a girl, they are prostitutes. The majority of Americans do not make the connection between prostitution and human trafficking. Many believe that individuals who are prostitutes have made the choice to be involved in that world, have substance abuse problems necessitating their involvement, and/or have experienced other difficult circumstances that led them there. Since prostitution is socially tolerated, the abusive and discriminatory environment that is so intrinsically intertwined in that world—a world where genuine consent is absent—is simply not understood when it relates to human trafficking victims.
We have to overcome that social acceptance and misperception when dealing with the judiciary and prosecutors. We have spoken to many survivors who have said that at the time of their victimization, they themselves believed they were prostitutes and never made the connection with human trafficking. Many have also stated that their traffickers coerced them into believing they had choices but, in reality, they had none and that they didn’t realize that until they were no longer victims. Many have said that while they were involved in a human trafficking scheme, they had no idea what human trafficking was and didn’t make the connection until many years later.
So, the biggest part of this misperception is that victims have a choice. I heard one survivor once say “freedom of movement is not freedom of choice.”