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Human trafficking: bottom-up solutions

Both the US and Britain are moving to stem sex and labor trafficking. But those involved in the problem say each community must rethink views of the victims and embrace them with aid and support.

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Local government workers look from their offices in Rotherham, England, Feb. 4. Rotherham's council leader and entire cabinet resigned after release of a report into their response to years of child sexual exploitation in the town. The report said the authority was not fit for purpose and had been in complete denial after an earlier inquiry found that 1,400 children, some as young as 11, were abused in Rotherham, by gangs.

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When Britain discovered last year that at least 1,400 children in the town of Rotherham had been victims of sex trafficking over a 16-year period, it was a wake-up call. This month, Prime Minister David Cameron declared such trafficking to be a “national threat.” He proposed a criminal law against official neglect of child sex abuse.

In the United States, too, popular grass-roots campaigns against both sex and labor trafficking have resulted in a rare case of bipartisanship in Congress. Both the House and Senate are moving on several anti-trafficking bills, including one that would direct any hefty fines from such crimes into a fund to aid victims in rehabilitating their lives. (That bill is currently stuck in the Senate over an abortion provision.)

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These moves in Britain and the US reflect steady progress worldwide in the effort to crack down on human trafficking, a practice often called “modern slavery” for the use of force, coercion, or fraud involved. Numbers vary, but the United Nations estimates more than 20 million people are trafficked each year.

At the heart of these efforts is a desire to prevent the treatment of people as commodities – a view often accepted by victims – which also calls for measures to embrace and reassure victims when they are released from bondage.

The efforts also focus on ways to ensure officials who receive reports of sex or labor trafficking do not ignore them. A British government report last year on the mass exploitation of children in Rotherham found officials “underplayed” the problem or often viewed victims as making a “lifestyle choice.”

The report led many Rotherham citizens to examine deep-seated attitudes that have bred indifference or fear, and contributed to the neglect of trafficking. In several community-wide events, hundreds of people from local churches and mosques gathered in prayer vigils or peaceful demonstrations to encourage trust and friendship.

As one churchgoer, David Woods, told the BBC, such gatherings help bring “a bit of light into this darkness.” And Imam Qari Asim said the city must “make sure that we do not let even one person fall through the net anymore.”

A global leader of the fight against sex trafficking, Ruchira Gupta of the  grass-roots organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide, says that providing a livelihood to former victims of trafficking helps to challenge the notion that such forms of slavery are inevitable. Her self-help groups teach thousands of former victims to start the journey “from commodity to entrepreneur.”

The effort to eliminate human trafficking, she adds, “begins at the bottom.” New laws are welcome. What will it take? Individuals and whole communities must take on new views.