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An End to Slavery?

Alumni in the fight against human trafficking suggest finding ways to use the talents we already have to help the staggering number of slaves in the world today—estimated at 27,000,000. by Jeremy Weber '05


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It was a rather audacious goal: photograph 50 weddings in 50 states in 50 weeks. But Jonathan and Michelle Oxley Hoffner ’07 dedicated 2012 to pulling off what they called the Fifty Nifty project. The couple has long connected their wedding photography business to deeper causes. Through their latest project, they donated $1,000 per wedding to help open a safe house for victims of sex trafficking in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

The Hoffners typically shoot between 20 to 25 weddings in a given year. But they loaded up their Honda Fit, put their Minneapolis apartment on Craigslist, and hit the road. They put 50,000 miles on their car—and one weekend even flew coast-to-coast for back-to-back weddings in Martha’s Vineyard and Seattle. They ended up photographing 40 weddings in 24 states, including the weddings of three Wheaton couples, and raised almost $52,000 (thanks to some outside donors)—enough to operate the She Dances safe home for a year.

hoffner-trafficking-wheaton“Tying together human trafficking and wedding photography isn’t exactly a natural fit,” says Jonathan. “But people all over the country showed tremendous support for the cause.”

What the Hoffners tapped into—aided by wedding and social justice publications that spread the news of the Fifty Nifty project—was society’s increasing awareness around one of the world’s most pressing problems: human trafficking.

The Misperceptions and the Scope

A relatively new term for a broad set of longstanding human rights issues, human trafficking has surged to the top of today’s social causes, taking the prominent place of awareness recently held by microfinance and girls’ education. But beneath the trendiness is a complex mess.

Essentially it encompasses the worldwide trade in humans—in other words, the coerced recruitment, transfer, and use of people for the purpose of exploitation (often sexual or forced labor).

“The prototypical case is a child in Southeast Asia,” said Kaign Christy ’80, one of many Wheaton alumni involved with addressing trafficking. “One parent becomes incapacitated, the family becomes desperate, and a trafficker will recruit the child with the promise of a lucrative job in another province. And it’s not until they arrive in the new area that the child is forced into prostitution and doesn’t have other alternatives.”

Yet misperceptions abound. “The common misperception is that most trafficking is about sex and about girls,” said Talmage Payne ’92, another alumni expert. “But most trafficking is labor-based. And boys are a big part of victims of sexual abuse.” For example, research by his organization, Hagar International, found that in Afghanistan boys are at more risk of sexual exploitation than girls.

What is clear is the worldwide scope. The United Nations estimates that trafficking in persons is a $32 billion industry and the second largest source of illegal income after illegal drugs. Nearly 2,500,000 people from 127 countries are trafficked into other countries, and another 20,000,000 are trafficked within their national borders.

International Justice Mission (IJM) estimates that 27,000,000 slaves exist in the world today—more than during all four centuries of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade combined.

Such daunting statistics could lead would-be activists to wonder where—or whether—to even begin addressing the problem. But many Wheaton alumni have ideas. In fact, Kaign has a surprising take on the issue: “It’s so hopeful.”

It’s Illegal Everywhere

In 2004, Kaign left a successful 20-year legal career—in the vacation destination of Sedona, Arizona, no less—to join IJM, a human rights agency that works with local governments to rescue victims of trafficking, prosecute perpetrators, and strengthen local laws and courts. He spent three years investigating and prosecuting cases of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Today he directs IJM’s newest field office in the Philippines child-sex-trafficking hub of Pampanga.

“A lot of problems in the world I wouldn’t begin to know how to solve—but this isn’t one of them,” says Kaign, who saw 102 traffickers arrested and 296 victims rescued in Cambodia. “Human trafficking is a crime. Adequate laws are on the books, but that is where they remain. The public justice systems are broken and don’t protect the poor.”

So while IJM may draw the most attention for its undercover rescues of trafficked women from brothels, it focuses on fixing the entire legal process.

“We are running cases of human trafficking through these public justice systems, diagnosing where they are broken, then designing projects to actually fix them,” says Kaign. “We increase the capacity of the police and prosecutors and social workers and judges in these systems to make them actually work more effectively for the poor.”

Results have been encouraging. After three years in the Philippines city of Cebu, IJM managed to reduce the number of available minors in the sex industry by 79 percent. Kaign hopes to achieve a similar reduction in Pampanga, where the sex industry has even more people under 18 years of age (nearly 8 percent) than Cebu did.

“We’re the first to say a law enforcement approach isn’t the only approach,” says Kaign. “But it is a necessary component, and it is effective.”

Winter 2014 An End to Slavery

Advocacy and Recovery

Other organizations advocate for victims and help them recover, a necessary complement to prosecution. Talmage is CEO of Hagar International, a Christian organization that provides protection, recovery, and community reintegration for women and children rescued from trafficking and other human rights abuses. Last year, Hagar supported 1,000 women and child victims of trafficking, domestic violence, and exploitation in Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.

After years spent doing humanitarian work in Asian countries, Talmage saw a niche that needed to be filled. “I saw a gap in the nonprofit sector to do high-quality recovery work for people who had sustained extreme human rights abuse and need very individualized long-term protection and care,” he says.

So while most aid organizations focus on disaster relief, public health, or agriculture, Talmage built one around psychology, social work, law, advocacy, and social enterprise.

“Hagar was an opportunity to build an organization very good at taking an individual person with complex personal, social, and legal problems and helping them recover and get back to community,” he says.

Shaima, for instance, was a teacher in Afghanistan before she was deceived and forced into sex work and then found guilty of “running away from home.” Through training from a Hagar coalition, a government official identified her as a victim rather than a criminal, and as a result, a police investigation uncovered an international trafficking ring. Hagar continues to work to ensure that Shaima, now 21, receives the care she needs.

The Beautiful Dream Society supports a shelter for trafficked women in the small mountain nation of Lesotho in southern Africa, where Karin Sandstrom M.A. ’08, a trauma psychologist, spent the past two years working as program director.

“My job at its most basic level is to hold out hope for people, because often they don’t have hope for themselves,” she says. “I don’t know how non-Christian counselors do it. But I’ve seen amazing changes in people when they start releasing anger and extending forgiveness. It’s easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Prevention: Dignified Work

Sarah Aulie ’04 runs Hand & Cloth, a nonprofit that partners with local organizations to offer dignified work to vulnerable women in Bangladesh, an export country for the illegal trafficking industry. After a visit to Kolkata, India, Sarah wanted to help girls whose mothers worked in red-light districts. She saw an opportunity to harness local blanket-making traditions and sell the textiles to American consumers. Sarah ended up shifting her partnerships to Bangladesh and now is helping on the preventive side. Many of the women in Kolkata’s red-light district were trafficked from Bangladesh, so providing dignified work in a region vulnerable to trafficking is a way to help fewer women end up in the brothels.

“Prevention is happening,” says Sarah. “If women have work, they are less likely to follow a trafficker to the city for a job.”

Research: On Resilience

Emily Goldberg ’10 spent her HNGR internship with Mosoj Yan, a residential home for street girls in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The organization is one of the HNGR program’s longest-running placements, having hosted 13 Wheaton students over the past 15 years. Emily returned to Mosoj Yan in July 2012 to research her dissertation for a doctorate in clinical psychology from George Fox University. Her subject: identifying the factors that correlate with resilience among teenage girls recovering from street life and sexual exploitation.

“Mosoj Yan’s program is excellent and sees about an 85-percent success rate of girls who go on to live successful, joyful lives off of the streets,” says Emily. “However, there is tons of heartbreak, frustration, and sadness over the 15 percent of girls we can’t seem to reach. It’s not as clear-cut as you would think. It’s not just that girls with the ‘worst’ pasts don’t do well and girls with less obvious trauma succeed.”

For two weeks, Emily gave the girls psychological tests measuring their resilience and collected data on their pasts. Now she is examining the data for connections and hopes to publish her findings to help not only Mosoj Yan, but also other organizations.

Everyone Can Help

These are just a few of the Wheaton alumni whose work addresses human trafficking. The problem may be vast, but all say the solution is just to start somewhere.

 “The issue of trafficking sounds so big and so overwhelming, and it is,” says Emily. “I’m not good at thinking at a macro level, but I can be committed to this one community and hopefully use my resources to bless them.”

“It’s in our American culture that we have to ride out with a quick fix. But our biblical worldview teaches that it’s okay sometimes to just be present in that darkness with someone, without all the solutions. God is still present,” says Talmage. “Some of it is about showing up—but bring your brains and courage. We don’t have all the answers, but we can be professional and entrepreneurial. I would rather be standing up against the darkness instead of not showing up because I can’t figure it out.”

Kaign believes all alumni can get involved, even if they’re not lawyers or social workers. One example: building social demand to generate political will to address the problem. “The one thing every American has is influence,” he says. An IJM-led petition recently helped the Trafficking Victims Protection Act not only get reauthorized by Congress, but also improved.

Another opportunity: volunteering our skills to an existing group. Sarah launched Hand & Cloth as a small project, but thanks to “tons” of other Wheaton alumni who donated their time and expertise with business, marketing, and legal help, Hand & Cloth has thrived. Sarah is now working to find similar products in other nations.

“The Wheaton community has built Hand & Cloth,” says Sarah. “It’s like the body of Christ—when everyone has different skill sets, whether accounting or business expertise, then wonderful things can happen.”

Another starting point: focusing on the labor side of trafficking by paying attention to the source of what you wear, eat, and buy.

“This consumer movement, asking, ‘Where does my T-shirt come from? Where does my food come from?’ is really valuable and important,” says Talmage. “The ability of somebody in Wheaton to influence children available for sex in Ho Chi Minh City is pretty limited. But who is growing your tomatoes in Florida? And where does your chocolate come from? Efforts to go into the supply chain are useful. You don’t always have a choice, but when you do, make a good one.”

For current students, Talmage’s advice is even broader. “What’s the right college major to fight human trafficking? It doesn’t matter,” he says. “What are you passionate about? Study it and get really smart and go find ways to get involved. People with expertise in business, art, psychology, law, and other professions are all needed in recovery work overseas.”

“The question is: What do you have in your hands?” says Kaign, citing the biblical examples of Moses’ parting the Red Sea and Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. “It really does matter to God that we use what he’s put in our hands to help those whose hands are empty. The starting point is to offer whatever you have to God, and he can multiply it.”

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