Human Trafficking Prevention Month
In 2011, I was in South Asia working with a well-respected human rights organization fighting sex trafficking. I spent the year behind the scenes – researching legal issues, training national lawyers in legal argumentation, and preparing witnesses to testify in trafficking cases. It was an incredible experience, and in honor of Human Trafficking Prevention Month, I am sharing a few of my thoughts “from the frontlines.”
I had been in South Asia for about six months, and we were waiting for decisions in two of our cases. After the trials and before judgment, the prosecutors told us that the judges in the two cases were known as “acquitting judges,” i.e., they almost never convicted anyone regardless of the facts. This was discouraging because we felt good about the facts of the cases and how our witnesses testified.
One case involved a minor who was trafficked after a stranger told her he could get her a good-paying job doing domestic work. After he raped her and sold her to a brothel where she was forced to prostitute to pay back her “debt,” she realized her mistake, but it was too late. Not surprisingly, the judge delayed issuing the judgment, so our team started praying for the judge and the judgment every day. There were many more delays in issuing the judgment, and at the end of the month, the judge finally granted the defense’s third application to recall the victim for additional cross-examination. We took this as a bad sign, and I felt that all hope was lost. Our team persevered in prayer, however, because it was the only “weapon” left in our arsenal to fight for the victim.
I still remember where I was sitting when I got the text message that the judge had convicted the brothel keeper. I was shocked – absolutely shocked. All signs had pointed to an acquittal, but not only did the judge convict, he sentenced the perpetrator to 7 years in prison (most sentences are around 1-2 years) and a $1000 fine ($600 of which was for victim compensation). Prior to this time, the largest compensation award we had seen was $100. Two weeks later, the other “acquitting judge” issued another conviction – 5 years plus a $1000 victim compensation award. Wow!
When you’re engaged in the fight against trafficking (or any form of violent oppression and injustice), it is very easy to lose hope. The system just does not seem to work for anyone except the perpetrators: Police tip off the brothel keepers; police mishandle the evidence; legal cases are delayed by one adjournment after another; witnesses refuse to testify; quality aftercare facilities and services are in woefully short supply. When nothing seems to change, you start to wonder if anything ever will. In those moments you have to step back and remember the “small” victories along the way, like the convictions and victim compensation awards.
For the girls involved in those cases, the victories are huge and life-changing. There are still hundreds of thousands of women and children trapped in sex trafficking around the world, and the struggle to end it is ongoing. But those cases and others will send a message to the perpetrators that brutal oppression will no longer be tolerated on our watch.
However, even knowing that the “small” victories make difference, it is possible to get overwhelmed and discouraged in what feels like a fight against impossible odds with limited resources and many lives at stake. For me, my faith in God sustained me through many moments of doubt and discouragement, and I repeatedly found myself turning in my Bible to stories of how God had acted to deliver people from violent and evil oppressors in the past.
I read again the story of Habakkuk, who stood up against oppressors who were exploiting the poor and perpetrating injustices in his own society. And as I looked at the terrible cost of human trafficking around me, I too wanted to cry out with the prophet:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4).
Then, in moments of doubt and despair, I would turn to God’s response and listen to words of encouragement and healing.
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. (Habakkuk 1:5, 2:3).
Fighting human trafficking is lonely, hard and discouraging work. Personally, I simply have no idea how I would have persevered in the work I was doing without the firm conviction that God was aware of the pain and suffering around me and that he WILL do something to right all of those wrongs at some point, whether it is in this life or the next.
If you choose to join this fight, I would encourage you to find something to sustain and encourage you as well. I felt compelled to share the hope that pulled me through some dark, discouraging days. For you, it may be your faith, the company of like-minded friends, or simply the conviction that you are doing the right thing. Remember that the cost may seem great and the struggle long, but be encouraged and persevere!
Leah Boyd joined ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Inc.) in 2012 as Director of Legal Affairs and Sudan Strategy to help implement a religious freedom training program for Sudanese lawyers and religious and community leaders. Leah is also coordinating ALARM’s justice programs in places like Burundi, DR Congo, and Rwanda, programs which equip African attorneys to respond to the injustice and to help the poor and vulnerable in their communities. When she’s not in Africa, Leah introduces American churches and attorneys to ALARM’s justice work and invites them to get involved in the struggle for biblical justice in East and Central Africa. Prior to joining ALARM, Leah spent one year working with an international human rights organization in South Asia and five years practicing law at a large regional firm in Dallas, Texas. In 2005, Leah graduated from Washington & Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia. She earned her undergraduate degree in Political Science from Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California in 2001.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of Ms. Boyd and do not represent the opinions of Human Rights Initiative or any of their employees.