Nicholas D. Kristof: Obama gave voice to sex-trafficking victims

09/29/2012 12:00 AM

09/29/2012 7:15 AM

When President Obama made a landmark speech against modern slavery on Tuesday, many of us in the news media shrugged. It didn’t fit into the political narrative.

But women like Sina Vann noticed. She’s a friend of mine who was trafficked as a young girl from Vietnam into Cambodian brothels. Now an anti-trafficking activist, she sent me an exuberant e-mail (in fractured English, her third language) with a message for Obama: “We are survivors here so proud of you, you are the big president in U.S. and you take action of trafficking. So you give victims from around the world have hope.”

Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of human trafficking who was nearly choked to death by her pimp, felt the same way. Lloyd now runs a superb program in New York City, GEMS, to help American girls escape “the life.” She told me that watching the Obama speech was “one of the most gratifying moments in my 15 years of work on the issue.”

So bravo to the president for giving a major speech on human trafficking and, crucially, for promising greater resources to fight pimps and support those who escape the streets. Until recently, the Obama White House hasn’t shown strong leadership on human trafficking, but this could be a breakthrough. The test will be whether Obama continues to press the issue.

I’ve been passionate about human trafficking ever since I encountered a village in Cambodia 15 years ago where young girls were locked up, terrified, as their virginity was sold to the highest bidder. It felt just like 19th-century slavery, except that these girls would likely be dead of AIDS or something else by their 20s.

Prostituted kids are among the most voiceless of the voiceless around the world, and it will make a difference if the White House speaks up for them – and fights for them.

On the India/Nepal border, I once chatted with an Indian policeman who was on the lookout for terrorists and smuggled DVDs but was uninterested in the streams of Nepali girls passing through, destined for the brothels in Mumbai and Kolkata. The policeman explained that the U.S. was pressuring India on movie piracy, so let’s show India and the world that we’re also concerned with enslaved children.

If we tell other countries to free their slaves, we also have to clean up our own act. It’s a disgrace that police officers and prosecutors routinely go after teenage girls – often runaways fleeing abuse or other impossible situations – and treat them as criminals, while showing less interest in the pimps who exploited them.

Republicans have done superb work on this issue in the past, but now they’re balking at straightforward reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – landmark legislation against human trafficking. What are they thinking?

One person on the front lines in the U.S. is Alissa, who has a scar on her cheek from where her former pimp mutilated her with a potato peeler as a warning not to escape. She did get away and now works with prostituted girls in Washington, D.C., whose average age, she says, is 14.

Alissa watched Obama’s speech, and then replayed it four more times. She has always been treated as a “throwaway,” she said, and she was dazzled that the president was treating the issue as a priority.

Some 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, let’s make sure that this isn’t just a speech, but a turning point.

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