Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that impacts lives around the world – and in the Pacific Northwest, says Sister Susan Francois.
A progressive Catholic activist and organizer, Francois is part of a small community of nuns that has been studying the issue for the past decade. The key, they say, is to stop the demand for the exploitation of women and children.
"The U.S. government estimates are that there are now 600,00-800,000 people trafficked into this country to work against their will," she says. "They may be sex slaves, they may be the people that work in your nail salon, or in your hair braiding salon, they're also held captive as domestic servants or nannies.
"When they come to this country their paperwork is taken from them, they're not given any payment, and they're really just made to live in fear."
Francois and the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center are hosting a series of free events launching the "Stop the Demand Campaign," providing information on human trafficking and with a focus on ways local residents can take action on the issue.
The workshops are scheduled in Seattle/Burien on Oct. 23, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the St. Francis of Assisi Parish Center, 15236 21st Ave. SW; in Portland on Nov. 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Providence Portland Medical Center Social Room, 4805 NE Glisan St.; and in Spokane, on Nov. 12, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the St. Aloysius Parish Center, 330 E Boone Ave.
The featured speaker will be Rani Hong, a trafficking survivor and founder of the Tronie Foundation.
The UN estimates there are about 3 million people enslaved in the world, Francois says, with some estimates as high as 27 million.
"It's really a hidden thing — we really don't know that these people are in our communities and really against their will," Francois says. "Our effort is to raise awareness of this so that people can make economic choices that will not rely on slave labor, whether it be in a sweatshop, so that we can buy or clothing, or also many people who are in prostitution are actually most likely they are against their will.
At Thursday's event, Hong – a survivor of human trafficking as a child in India – will tell her personal story and talk about the work she does with her husband, Trong, who was forced against his will to serve as a child soldier.
"They both came to this country, they both became successful business people and met and found each other and had this common thing in their lives," Francois says.
The couple founded the Tronie Foundation, which started the first shelter for trafficking victims in the Pacific Northwest, and also provides restoration to victims of trafficking and those vulnerable to exploitation
Washington and Oregon both have state laws against trafficking of persons.
"It's also a federal offense, and the law enforcement statistics are probably pretty small in terms of what the actual situation probably is," Francois says. "Washington state has about 40 cases a year, Oregon has about 40 to 50 cases a year that are prosecuted, but because people are not aware of it, it's really a much larger thing."
Francois says the group's goal with each of the three upcoming events is to create a regional effort working on trafficking.
"In the second half of the evening we will move from just hearing about trafficking to some action steps that maybe we can take in our own lives, maybe in our church or at our school, to really bring an end to trafficking," she says. "It's people we know who are the sex workers, people we know who are going into a nail salon and don't realize that maybe the people who are helping them are actually there against their will."
She says it's important to talk with young men and women about their actions and look at the ways language is used to glorify exploitation.
"We can talk to our children, talk to our young men about the value of women and why they may not want to purchase sex services, we can talk to our young women themselves," she says. "It's really the paradigm shift in the language we use– a pimp, instead of a criminal, or a prostitute instead of someone who's being exploited into sex.
"We think there are many people out there doing little things here and there, and our goal is to connect all those people, and then people who may not know about this can come and see how they can be dialed in," Francois says. "Because they say it takes a village to raise a child, but it's going to take the community of the Northwest to stop this here."
For more information go to www.ipjc.org.