Editor’s Note: Guest Contributor, Eve Aronson is a freelance journalist and analyst. As a correspondent for IHA (Ihlas) News Agency, Eve covers the intimate and true story of a woman who was able to overcome and escape the world of sex trafficking. Today’s blog will begin a two-part post. Feature interviews will include the President of Free the Slaves, and the Executive Director and CEO of The Polaris Project. Eve currently works at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at the Polaris Project in Washington D.C. and can be reached at: evearonson.iha[at]gmail.com.
WASHINGTON (IHA)- In 2005, D.C. area resident Shamere McKenzie was scrambling to find ways to pay for college. She was relieved when she met a man who offered to front her the money to finish her coursework . But for the next year and six months, Shamere would not attend classes. Instead, she would be brutally enslaved by her supposed benefactor as his sex worker.
In addition to being raped by her trafficker and his clients, Shamere described how she was forced to help traffic other young girls, and the consequences of challenging her trafficker’s demands. “I was being forced to drive these other girls around. When I told him I didn’t want to drive, he would put a gun to my head,” she said calmly. “On one occasion he put a gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger. Luckily that gun was unloaded.”
The man that turned out to be Shamere’s trafficker began as a persistent courter. But it didn’t take long for him to become manipulating and abusive. Bradley Myles, Executive Director and CEO of Polaris Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that combats human trafficking, notes that this sudden, intentional character reversal is typical among traffickers. “We’re seeing pimps posing as someone who can be a benefactor, someone who can get [women] out of a tough situation. [The pimps] fake some sort of romantic interest for a few weeks before they turn on the person.”
Through psychological manipulation and physical degradation, Shamere’s trafficker was able to take complete control of her, both physically and psychologically. “When a man tells you he will kill you, and when he beats you the point where you think you are going to pull your last breath, you believe that that man will in fact kill you,” she says assertively. “When a man tells you if you leave, he will kill your family, you’re going to want to do whatever it takes to protect your family.” In Shamere’s case, this meant staying with her trafficker, regardless of the risks and dangers involved in her work.
Experts have offered a variety of explanations that attempt to pinpoint how traffickers are able to methodically abuse women and girls with such a lack of remorse. For Shamere, the explanation is simple: “When you think about someone who would beat someone in such a way that they’re close to death, just for going out there to sell their own bodies, to make money,” she explains, “And while they’re in such danger on the streets, [their trafficker] is at home sleeping, not even protecting these girls that they promised to protect. They’re just sick in the head, to say it plain and straight,” she says conclusively.
According to Myles, pimps see sex trafficking as an opportunity to make a lot of money at very low risk. This perspective in turn fuels their trade. “[Pimps] feel like society is not going to crack down on them,” he says. “They feel like pimping out women is not going to be a priority for law enforcement, they think it’s a lower priority crime.”
Myles says that stories like Shamere’s are all too common, particularly among vulnerable women and girls in desperate situations. “What we’re seeing as a common thread is the concept of vulnerability, “he says. “Traffickers tend to pray on that vulnerability, and they tend to realize that it’s easier to spend their time recruiting people who have these risk factors.”
It is these vulnerabilities, continues Myles, that eliminate the need for pimps to prevent their victims, like Shamere, from running away. “The pimps are saying, ‘What a great deal. I get to recruit all these vulnerable women and girls and I get to tap into all these men who are willing to buy sex and not get caught doing it.’”
Dr. Kevin Bales, author and President of Free the Slaves, sister organization to Anti-Slavery International, estimates that there are currently 27 million people enslaved worldwide. He notes that while many believe that the initial apprehension of women and girls for trafficking requires violence or force, poverty and destitution lead the majority to “walk into slavery.”
“You don’t have to kidnap them. You don’t have to hit them on the head and drag them away because there is a great surplus of people who are very economically desperate,” he states. “If you are an unscrupulous slave trader, a trafficker, you can just go to someone and say ‘you know, I’ve got a good job for you, maybe a chance of education. All you have to do is come with me and everything will be great.’” Bales notes that, not surprisingly, many women and girls are enticed by such offers and often do not realize their trafficker’s true intentions until it’s too late.
Shamere attempted to run away from her trafficker three times. In each instance, phone calls threatening to kill her family brought Shamere back to her trafficker. “My family was near me and [my trafficker] knew exactly where they were,” she explains. “Once you go with this man and you are under the force, the fear and the manipulation really keep you there. After running away three times from her trafficker, Shamere finally developed the courage to run away for a fourth time. “And that fourth time is when I came back home to my family,” she says.
Shamere’s testimony to law enforcement about her enslavement led to the prosecution of her trafficker. He was placed on trial and is currently serving a 290-month sentence.
But not all women and girls who are trafficked for sex survive the ordeal. Shamere cites stories that she has heard about other women and girls who were unfortunate enough to fall victim to the sex industry. “Not every girl has an opportunity to make it out of that life,” she explains. “Some girls are beaten to death. Some girls are killed because they’re testifying against their trafficker. Some girls are killed just for being disobedient.”
Shamere cites a particularly gruesome story of a young girl who, after attempting to run away from her trafficker, was forced to watch as another woman was brutally murdered to show the consequences of attempting escape. It is the threat of acts of violence like these, says Shamere, that allow traffickers to exert complete control over the bodies and minds of their slaves.
According to Shamere, the paralysis and fear that traffickers instill in their sex workers make it very difficult for the public to recognize victims. Sex trafficking is a “hidden crime,” she says, and individuals must be vigilant about spotting victims and reporting traffickers to the police. “[Sex trafficking] happens right in our neighborhoods, and we don’t recognize these red flags. We walk past victims every day,” she says, sternly. “And we don’t realize that [enslavement] is happening because we don’t know the red flags.”
Shamere cites lack of identification and victims lowering their heads or their traffickers speaking for them as behaviors that may indicate a trafficking situation.
Jessica Salsbury, Senior Immigration Staff Attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center in Virginia, agrees with Shamere that public awareness is critical to combating human trafficking. “So many times the victims are able to leave because of ordinary people who have their eyes open and listen and who are able and willing to reach out,” says Salsbury, who works on behalf of immigrant women and girls that have fled gender-based violence.
Salsbury and her colleagues help victims access justice through legal, public policy and education channels. “It’s just so critical that we continue to [reach out] because trafficking is such a hidden problem in some respects but in other respects, it’s all around us and we just need to be looking for it.”