As Former Victim Speaks Out, Lawmakers Target Human Trafficking

Where policy ends, community work begins

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J. Scott Applewhite / ASSOCIATED PRESS

From left, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Though Shamere McKenzie, 30, was a victim of sex trafficking for two years, she says her experiences as a young woman forced into prostitution in New York do not define her. “I am not my story,” said McKenzie, who now works as a program assistant for Shared Hope International, a trafficking victim advocacy organization.

When McKenzie was 21 and a student at St. Johns University in New York, she met and got involved with a man who later became her pimp. In the beginning, he was charming and told her he would help her out financially after she lost her athletic scholarship due to injury. But her savior soon became her worst nightmare, forcing her into a life of exploitation.

For 18 months, McKenzie sold her body for sex every night of the week, was subjected to vicious beatings from her captor, and forced to drive women as young as 12-years-old across state lines for sex. She was considered the “bottom girl,” the pimp’s confidant who maintains the flock of women while he’s away. As a result, McKenzie was tried and convicted as a sex offender.

Unfortunately, stories like Shamere McKenzie’s are all too familiar in the United States and across the globe. The Department of State estimates 27 million people are trafficked for labor, sex, and other exploitative practices across the globe every year. Between 14,000 and 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. annually. Yet, the issue of human trafficking is one that is being addressed nationally as lawmakers have spent the past year introducing and passing laws that combat the practice.

In mid-November, the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act was introduced in the Senate and the Justice for Victim’s of Trafficking Act was introduced in the House, two of dozens of bipartisan and bicameral anti-trafficking bills that have been introduced in 2013. The November bills would ensure that trafficking victims are not treated as criminals.

Also, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 reauthorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and added protection for child victims of trafficking. And 39 sates passed new anti-trafficking laws in 2013.

“We really have come a long way in establishing a baseline environment for effective anti-trafficking responses,” said Lara Powers, a call specialist at the D.C.-based Polaris Project’s Human Trafficking Resource Center. “While this varies from state to state, most states have markedly improved in the past 10 years.”

Though she agrees that what’s happening in regards to policy is important Michele Clark, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and an expert on human trafficking says there is an opportunity now for organizations to step in and help trafficking victims move forward. “I believe there’s a lot of work to be done in protection and assistance to trafficked persons so that they can move on with their lives,” Clark said. “And that gives community groups opportunities to step in and help survivors. We can’t prosecute bad guys, but we can create literacy. We can be the ones to open doors.”

McKenzie, who now advocates for victims of trafficking, credits her restoration to Shared Hope International, which provides support for victims of trafficking. At a panel on trafficking last Friday at George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute, McKenzie said that because of the organization she has hope for other victims. “My pimp used to tell me that the police is not your friend,” McKenzie said. “For me to now be sitting in a room training law enforcement on how to identify and interact with victims of trafficking empowers me. It shows me, wow…you really care.”