Capitol Hill Event Examines Intersection Between Human Trafficking and Health

By | May 18, 2018

Washington, D.C., May 18 (C-Fam) Women and girls trafficked for sex suffer a wide range of physical health problems resulting from repeated acts of violence and rape, and bear an emotional and psychological toll that lasts long after they escape from their traffickers. In a groundbreaking U.S. study nearly 90% of survivors reported having contact with health care providers while being trafficked. Yet few providers have received adequate training in identifying potential victims, much less gaining the trust of traumatized patients in order to help them.

On Wednesday, a half-day event at the Russell U.S. Senate office explored the intersection between health and human trafficking, with an emphasis on protecting the lives of trafficked women and girls as well as the children they frequently conceive while being exploited. Co-sponsored by C-Fam, Global Centurion, and a large number of partner organizations, the event featured testimonies from survivors, medical and policy experts, and community leaders fighting to eradicate the form of modern slavery that is sex trafficking. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey also gave remarks.

Tanya Street is a trafficking survivor who has worked in crisis pregnancy centers as well as speaking and producing documentaries to educate communities about the realities of human trafficking. She spoke about the importance of service providers showing respect and compassion to potential victims and being “trauma-informed” in order to foster a real human connection and build trust.

Dr. Jeff Barrows encouraged advocates to focus on the accreditation process used by hospitals to qualify for federal funding, and to call for an educational component on human trafficking to be included in the accreditation requirements. Recognizing the time constraints faced by doctors and nurses, he suggested hospitals employ a dedicated expert who could speak to potentially trafficked persons in greater depth.

Several survivors spoke about the devastating mental and physical consequences of the abuse they faced, and how shame and the fear of not being believed kept them silent. They also spoke of enduring repeated, forced abortions, which is not unusual, according to survey data presented by Global Centurion president Laura Lederer. She noted that almost 84% of survivors reported having abortions in a clinic or hospital, yet providers either missed the warning signs of their predicament or turned a blind eye.   Dr. Donna Harrison shared the story of a 13-year-old girl in Alabama who had two abortions in a four-month period, yet the Planned Parenthood clinic made no inquiry about abuse and did not report the case to officials.

Human trafficking is a global issue, and the U.S. has an important role to play in combating it overseas as well as domestically. Michelle Bekkering of USAID shared some of the agency’s and the Trump administration’s efforts to empower women and girls overseas to receive education and job opportunities, making them less vulnerable to exploitation.

Assistance for sex-trafficked women and girls is a topic of political debate between groups that see abortion as a form of help for victims and those who see it as a component of the abuse they face, and between those who regard prostitution as legitimate work and those who seek its abolition.

Senator Lankford, whose office facilitated the event, noted the importance of the demand side of sexual exploitation: “That gets discussed in drug trafficking all the time. But it never gets discussed in human trafficking.”