Stigma and misconceptions could hide human trafficking in Florida

07/30/12 Liz McKibbon
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

Florida residents may not consider their community a hub for human trafficking. Law enforcement officials see a different story. Crisis Center of Tampa Bay hosted a workshop in Tampa on Friday as a tool for those coming into contact with victims. Stigma and misconceptions about human trafficking can prevent crime discovery and conviction.

Twenty-eight women and three men spent the afternoon on the second floor of the Crisis Center building, located off of Bearss Avenue. Law enforcement officers, volunteers and students conferred about problems surrounding human abuse. Marilyn Bray is Outreach and Empowerment Coordinator for the Center.

“Often times survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence and human trafficking, they feel backed into a corner. There’s so much negative stigma and perception around this. And for the longest time, these were issues that we didn’t talk about. What happened behind closed doors, stayed behind closed doors. If something happened to you, advice was… put it under the rug.”

According to Giselle Rodriguez of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, pimps condition their victims by providing them with affection and gifts before introducing the abuse.

“A pimp doesn’t always just pimp out one person. He has a group of girls or a stable. And one of the things he does to keep things going, keep things intriguing, is he almost starts like a competition among the girls. Who’s gonna be my trusted girl? Who’s going to ride or die for me?”

This number two girl is referred to as the ‘bottom’. Pimps put everything from cell phones to apartment rentals in that girl’s name. The ‘bottom’ sometimes distributes abuse to the other girls. Rodriguez says this results in victims being charged for the same abuse they lived through for years.

“I’ve seen situations in where the bottoms will say, ‘Well I know he loved me, because when he beat them, he would use a fist, but with me he would use an open hand. You know I got to sleep in the same bed with him, not on the floor like the other girls. But on of the things pimps do is that they’ll do everything they can to set-up the bottom to take the fall.”

According to Rodriguez, the average entry age for prostitution is just 12 years old, down from 15 years of age in 2002. Some say legalizing prostitution would prevent trafficking, since sex workers would be more aware of the market and could redirect clients to legal, consensual sex instead. Rodriguez disagrees. She says if the demand exists, the supply will follow.

”Germany legalized their prostitution, and they actually saw an increase of 60% in sex trafficking cases. And think about it—if it’s legalized, that means there’s going to be more—what—demand?”

Rodriguez criticizes the media for shining a limited spotlight on forced prostitution. Human trafficking also includes labor traffic and domestic servitude. Even though slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, human trafficking wasn’t made illegal until the late 1990s. The US modeled the Trafficking Victims Protection Act after a UN protocol, but did not include the entire resolution.

“Under the UN protocol, it also defines organ trafficking and illegal adoptions as human trafficking. Unfortunately that was not included in our law. Because who do you think the biggest customers of organ trafficking and illegal adoptions are?”

Labor trafficking draws less widespread recognition than sex trafficking, but is estimated to claim more victims. This is due in part to high demand for inexpensive products and service. Victims of forced labor have been discovered in many industries—including the garment industry, assisted living facilities, nail salons and even personal nannies. Rodriguez says many victims can’t or don’t report their abusers. A house servant in Cape Coral became pregnant, resulting in her discovery.

“And again, this was a young girl that was sold by her mother in Guatemala, for the equivalent of $260. This happened when she was 11. She was brought in and basically did all the cooking, the cleaning, the day care, and of course whenever the wife was away, the husband would rape her. The person who purchased her.”

Statistics show that Florida is one of the top three trafficking states. Advocates recommend community-wide solutions, adding that acknowledging and talking about the problem is the first step. Candy Rivera, a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence is starting a program called ‘Rise Up’ to do her part to help other victims.

“We’re going to do a success summit to help them get new jobs, self esteem, how to fill out an application, go on job interviews and find them some resources.”

Other solutions include buying fair trade products to ensure fair wages and treatment of employees.

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I am surprised that human trafficking is also such a problem in the developed nations and to read news that so few of those organising it are convictd. I think the problem is far worse in developint nations where poverty drives women into this terrible circle of human exploitation. Just this month, a Court in East Timor acquitted and Indonesian charged with human trafficking when she is alleged to have brought 7 Indonesian women to East Timor for prostitution. Under the existing laws in East Timor, it is very difficult to prove the charges. The full story may be read here