Student group marks Human Trafficking Awareness Day

A story on an on-campus event about human trafficking, published on North by Northwestern in January 2008.

On screen, a little Ugandan boy, maybe nine or ten years old, tells a reporter about the day rebels abducted his family. He and his siblings were forced to kill their mother if they did not want to die themselves. Soon trained as a child solder, the little boy cannot forget what he did.

“The memory still haunts me,” he says.

He’s just one of the thousands of victims of human trafficking around the world, and Northwestern sophomore Allie Bream, who went to Uganda, showed his story on Friday to help mark the first National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Hosted by student group One Voice, Bream and other speakers covered topics from the $14 billion sex-trade industry in the United States to child soldiers in Africa. Seventy or so people showed up in the McCormick Tribune Center to listen.

Like Bream, senior Ryan Pederson spoke about his time in Uganda. He worked in a slum in the country’s capital, Kampala, while Bream volunteered in the city of Gulu, in the northern part of the country. Their experiences led them to work with former child soldiers and to realize the horror the children had gone through.

Pederson described the conflict between the government and the rebel army, and how the rebels abducted children. Bream showed a video detailing the experience of the Ugandan child soldier. She also recalled a child with a huge scar on his face, a way for the armies to recognize “their” children.

Despite these horrors, Bream said organizations are now addressing the issue in a more productive way.

“Now the focus is less on [the difficult task of] keeping the children from getting abducted, and more on getting those children released and then rehabilitating them,” she said.

“But there’s no chance to rehabilitate child soldiers if these conflicts don’t end,” Pederson added. “And Uganda is just one example of many, many countries where there are child soldiers being used in conflict.”

Studies estimate 250,000 children are being exploited daily as soldiers, human mine detectors or sex toys worldwide.

Pederson denounced the fact that the United States funds, with military or commercial sales,many armies that use child soldiers (PDF).

But that can change, Pederson said. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007, sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is to be brought before Congress in a month. If the bill is passed, the United States would stop funding armies that use child soldiers.

Pederson estimates the bill has only a 50 percent chance of passing, the main obstacle being the interests the United States has in those countries. He urged students at the event to sign petitions in favor of the bill.

But trafficking does not always happen in distant places, according to Daria Mueller, a policy specialist for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Human trafficking can take place just an El ride away, she said.

According to Mueller, prostitution is a bigger issue in the Windy City than one might think. Between 16,000 and 25,000 girls and women are involved in the sex trade in Chicago alone, and two-thirds of these begin before the age of 18. Homeless people or runaway youth are the most likely to fall into the sex trade.

Mueller deplored the way sex traffic within the United States is usually played down.

“We joke about it, we talk about ‘pimps and hos,’ and we glorify that type of culture,” she said. “But it’s not a laughing matter. It’s a serious problem, and it’s just as serious as what’s happening overseas.”

Mueller said that many prostitutes fall into alcoholism or drug addiction to cope with their problems. Having a record of prostitution also makes it hard for those in sex trade to find a place to live, thereby making it difficult for them to escape their cycle of problems. Prostitutes also get very little help or counseling when in jail, as they are typically viewed as common criminals.

“The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder within this population is extremely high,” Mueller said. “In fact, I believe it is higher than it is for veterans of combat… because they’ve been raped so many times, because they’ve been beat up so many times, because they’re constantly in fear for their life.”

Mueller expressed hope that, by educating themselves and taking action, as Pederson and Bream have done, students could make a dent in what she called “today’s modern-day slavery,” whether it takes place in Africa or around the block.

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