By Emma Haskel
I recently attended a conference hosted by the New York Anti-Trafficking Network entitled ‘Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons: Empowering Women to Address Poverty’. The event was held at the United Nations on March 15th and contained an incredible panel of influential anti-trafficking social workers, lawyers, and advocates from various organizations around the world. These panelists worked to explore the issue of human trafficking in women, children, LGBT people, and others in vulnerable situations around the world, and explored the link between human trafficking, exploitative work conditions, and economic empowerment. The panelists addressed how economic opportunity, migration law and policy, law enforcement, and even geographical location play a role in the dynamic of the labor industry, and offered rights-based solutions to the issue of trafficking, speaking on their experience working with trafficking victims and how they work to support and empower them.
One of the panelists who spoke about her experience as an avid human rights advocate was Rebecca DeSimone. Rebecca is the founder and director of the human trafficking program at an organization called My Sisters’ Place. My Sisters’ place is an organization that provides victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and human trafficking, in seeking safety, self-determination, and justice. The organization provides education and legal aid to women who experience any violations of their human rights, as well as allowing them to stay for free in a protected home funded by My Sisters’ Place for up to 120 days for free. One client that Ms.DeSimone spoke of was a client from a poverty-stricken area of a foreign nation, who was brought legally into the United States to work for a diplomat providing domestic work with a legal work visa. Her original contract stated that she would work five days a week and would be provided room and board, and this woman even left behind her two small children in hopes of being able to better provide for them from America. When this woman arrived, however, all of her documents were seized by her employer. This made her face the threat of being an undocumented immigrant and threatened her to be deported, thus posing serious ramifications for her safety and the well being of her family. She had to work seven days a week with no pay, contract, or days off. She was denied access to healthcare, endured great physical abuse, and lived in constant fear. This woman had nowhere to go, no resources or money, and was learning to speak English. She found My Sisters’ Place, entered their emergency shelter, and was immediately assigned a public defender to help her gain her rights back and to help her apply for jobs again, as well as being provided a counselor to help her learn to feel safe again. “She went from viewing herself as a victim to viewing herself as a powerful survivor,” Ms.DeSimone stated. This awe-inspiring woman is one of many whose lives My Sisters’ Place has saved, exemplifying the palpable change that this powerful organization provides to women daily.
Another incredible panelist from the parallel event was Mary Caparas the overseer of the Asian Women’s Empowerment Coalition at the New York Asian Women’s Center. 33 years ago, the founders of the New York Asian Women’s Center realized that there was a gap in services for women in the Asian community. The organization recognized a need for a branch that could provide Asian women with social services, and has been maintaining a strong effort to provide help for Asian women in recent years, opening a branch of their organization specifically to aid victims of trafficking. The organization is constantly making new strides in improving their services, even hiring an immigration attorney four years ago in order to provide legal help to their clients. Their employees speak a wide array of languages, including Vietnamese, Bengali, Korean, Cantonese, and Tegali. The organization works to provide case management and wellness practices for their clients, as well as facilitating trauma recovery through various techniques, ranging from traditional psychotherapy to therapeutic yoga. The organization works very hard to increase the clients’ senses of self advocacy and to “...help them manage their lives in a way that allows them to start healing and begin the end to their cycle of trauma,” in the words of Ms. Caparas. Many of the organization’s clients who have been trafficked have very few resources and require financial help, which the organization helps their clients fulfill by helping them find jobs. In order to help clients find jobs that they truly want rather than settling for easy jobs, they provide course development programs and English classes, leaving their door open to all Asian women who need help, trusting them and supporting them every step of the way.
Yet another panelist who spoke of her influential work was Aisha Lewis-McCoy, an Exploitation Intervention Project Attorney at the Legal Aid Society. Aisha works specifically to fight the criminalization of transgender women of color, although she provides a wide range of people with legal aid. Some of her biggest projects push for more access to condoms and sex education for young people in America, and to provide young women with the initiative to spread awareness on human rights. Ms. Lewis-McCoy’s initiative in providing her clients with help is to determine where they are and what their vision of freedom is, and to attempt to see how she and the Legal Aid Society can help them meet that goal as a defender organization. As a worker in the Legal Aid Society, Ms. Lewis-McCoy provides direct representation in human court for sex workers and victims of labor and sex trafficking. As someone is arrested for prostitution, unlicensed practice, “The Legal Aid represent them and joins them through every step of their journey with an open mind,” Ms. Lewis-McCoy states of her organization. “Most people trying to combat trafficking simply sweep up everyone in the sex trade criminalize them open them up to further exploitation,” Ms. Lewis McCoy explained. “[The Legal Aid Society] provides post-conviction relief for those who are victims of sex trafficking”. Often, victims of trafficking are trafficked by a family member or friend. Even if there is an avenue to exploit their trafficker, the victim of trafficking might not always want to do this. Ms. Lewis McCoy explained that in representing a victim of trafficking, the Legal Aid Society must keep in mind what their client’s vision of empowerment is, and must recognize that if this definition does not include bringing their trafficker to justice, the Legal Aid Society must respect that decision. The Legal Aid Society provides clients with legal and social aid, helping victims of trafficking to garner a supportive network of people and resources to help them overcome their struggles and turn their lives around.
The final panelist to present was Dhruba Prasad Ghimire, who travelled from Nepal to present at the conference. Mr. Prasad Ghimire is the general secretary of the Rural Women’s Network of Nepal, an organization whose main focus is on rural marginalized women in Nepal, providing help for women in need and advocating against violence and trafficking of women. “While there are policies against human trafficking in the government,” Mr. Prasad Ghimire explained, there are still 10-50,000 people trafficked annually in Nepal, as these policies are very hard to implement” A large majority of these instances occur in rural areas due to a lack in opportunities and education, and the traffickers are sometimes parents themselves, selling their daughters as sex traffickers for money. The Rural Women’s Network of Nepal provides loans to women in Nepal to help them get jobs and restart their lives. They train these women to gain work experience, working predominantly with women from rural areas, particularly in recent years after the tragic earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015. This earthquake resulted in the deaths of around 9,000 people as well as around 600,000 fires in houses, hospitals, and offices throughout the country. Rural areas were affected particularly harshly by the earthquake, as these areas received less help in their recovery process from the natural disaster, resulting in a rise in trafficking crimes against women in these areas as people attempted to make money that they might have lost in the earthquake.
This conference was a remarkable opportunity to hear from a multitude of pivotal advocates in the fight against trafficking, particularly in the realm of empowering women victims of trafficking. It was a particularly incredible privilege to be able to personally speak to each panelist after the conference, and I learned a great deal about the phenomenal service industries that provide help for these women daily. While the human trafficking industry continues to daunt the international market, it is individuals such as these panelists who are taking the necessary strides towards ending this issue.