Conference Held on Human Trafficking of Young Women


Activist Rachel Lloyd, founder of  Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), spoke along with two other panelists at a conference addressing domestic human sex slavery and trafficking of young females on March 26. Lloyd, once a victim herself, spoke to attendees about her life in sex slavery and how she founded GEMS in 1998 as a newly-arrived, 22-year-old British immigrant with only a G.E.D. and a computer. GEMS is now the nation’s largest organization, serving over 300 human trafficking victims ages 12-24 each year. The other panelists included Fernando Camacho, administrative judge of the Queens Supreme Court Criminal Division, and Lauren Hersh, chief of the Sex Trafficking Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

The conference was well attended with sponsors from Fordham’s Office of Alumni Relations and Office of Mission and Ministry, the New York Coalition of Religious Congregations STOP Trafficking of Persons (NY-CRC-STOP), and the LifeWay Network.  NY-CRC-STOP is comprised of 30 religious advocacy groups for the sexually exploited, LifeWay being one of its initiatives to provide victims with safe, temporary housing possibilities.

In addition to current Fordham students and alumni, students and activists from other colleges and high schools in the tri-state area sat in the audience. Sarah Shultz, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, attended the conference after hearing about it through the student club ISIS. Shultz said, “I didn’t know how rich and diverse the group of people would be who care about this issue.”

Caitlin Tramel, director of Alumni Relations, and Msgr. Joseph G. Quinn, vice president of the Office of Mission and Ministry, welcomed the panelists. Relating the conference to Fordham’s mission, Quinn stated the event was important “to seek the truth and transmit wisdom.”

After attendees listened to devotional readings and music and reflected on why they came to the conference, Lloyd spoke. “It’s critical to think about the fact that just because you’re from this country, [it] doesn’t mean you have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else,” Lloyd said. She demonstrated that many Americans’ skewed perception of sex workers is that they do their work out of choice. Yet she claimed that the majority of sex workers are victims–vulnerable, sexually exploited minors left without options or help from their communities and family members. Lloyd also argued that Americans perceive sex-trafficking as a foreign issue, preventing them from recognizing it within their own communities. She then challenged the audience to think about the societal factors such as poverty, homelessness, molestation and domestic violence that make victims vulnerable to sex traffickers.

Camacho supported Lloyd’s claims, adding that police response to sex trafficking is part of the problem. He admitted that law enforcement does not yet take sexual crimes seriously, and that police officers have generally criminalized victims, instead of prosecuting their traffickers and giving victims the services they need to live safe, healthy lifestyles. In fact, numerous cases have been discovered in which police officers have raped sex trafficking victims while in their custody.

“This is all over New York City,” Hersh said. “This is all over the state of New York.” She emphasized that New Yorkers must be informed and vocal about the injustices they see, saying this is “the best way that we are going to ultimately be able to help these victims and be able to prosecute these cases.”

After listening to the panel discussion, attendees grouped up to construct pro-active measures to combat the issue. Some suggestions were to stop glorifying pimp culture, to increase consequences for traffickers and customers, to counsel traffickers and young men to stop the cycle and to promote mentoring and educational programs in middle and high schools, prime targets for predators.

Attendees also discussed the impact of discourse on the issue. Like many of her fellow guests, Shultz said, “[I’ve] made the decision to try to change the language [I] use to discuss sex work,” acknowledging that it can be a tool in fighting human trafficking.

The most recent accomplishment in the movement against human trafficking is the passage of New York’s Safe Harbor Act in 2008. This is the first law that recognizes minors in the sex industry as exploited children, ending the prosecution of sex workers younger than 16. Put in effect in April 2010, Safe Harbor mandates safe houses, crisis intervention and community-based programs for survivors. The law also authorizes training to law enforcement officers on identifying and assisting commercially, sexually exploited youth.

Lloyd pointed out that Safe Harbor is imperfect, needing a large amount of funding to be effective. Yet she assured the audience, “It’s not always about legislation; it’s about working with what we have. And we can get good convictions with these laws if we put [together] the resources and the will. It’s about the will.”