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Houston, Human Trafficking, and HIV

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by Kelly A. McCann

As a middle-aged woman who has worked in prisons, jails, mental health programs, and AIDS service organizations, I’ve been around the block a time or two. I’ve seen my share of human tragedy—fear, regret, illness, despair, and the results of violence, cruelty, and risky behaviors. Exposure to such ugliness can be difficult, but I care deeply about people and I want to help them improve their lives—which is the reason I work in social service.

As a result of my experiences, I must admit that I’ve become somewhat jaded and world-weary (it’s an occupational hazard for people in my biz). I still have passion for my work and I still feel empathy, of course, but after more than 25 years of service, I thought I was impervious to the shock and awe that often accompanies learning of some recent calamity or new development in human maliciousness.

I was wrong.

At a recent AIDS Foundation Houston all-staff meeting, we heard a presentation on human trafficking that left me feeling stunned and horrified. The information shared with us by Kendra Perry, coalition manager for the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition, was so disturbing, in fact, that I knew I would have to write about it. And since there’s a connection between human trafficking and HIV/AIDS, it’s an appropriate topic for this column.

The term “human trafficking” may be misleading because it does not necessarily pertain to the movement of people. It actually relates to the buying and/or selling of people—modern-day slavery, plain and simple. It involves victims who are forced, defrauded, or coerced into working or providing services against their will.

According to a 2004 report, 14,500 to 17,500 persons are trafficked in the U.S. each year. And Houston, our hot-but-beautiful city, is a hub for human trafficking. The Department of Justice estimates that 20 percent of all victims in the U.S. pass through Houston along the I-10 corridor.

Human trafficking might sound harmless enough, in that it “employs” men, women, and children for labor as factory or nail salon workers, domestic servants, child soldiers, etc. But let’s be clear: it is involuntary servitude. Most victims of human trafficking in the United States are females who are utilized for sex acts ranging from forced marriages to prostitution. Sadly, most of those victims are girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who are exploited by the commercial sex industry.

Since these trafficking victims are literally enslaved, they have no ability to insist on condom use, or to refuse high-risk sex acts. These girls and women are forced to endure sex with multiple “partners” (and I’m using that term very loosely) every day. According to Shared Hope International, such human trafficking victims are raped an average of 1,200 times per year.

As you might imagine, that puts them at an extremely high risk of contracting HIV, and not only because of the high number of sexual events. The violence often associated with rape causes injuries and abrasions that further increase the victims’ chances of becoming infected if exposed to the virus. Because the young girls’ bodies are physically immature, they are even more vulnerable to injury during forced sex.

Another factor that puts these young girls and women at risk is their infection with other sexually transmitted diseases. Having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) makes it even more likely that a person will become infected if exposed to HIV. Studies suggest that 60 percent of female trafficking victims will contract an STI during their enslavement, and most infections will go untreated. High numbers of sexual assaults plus related genital injuries and abrasions plus untreated STIs: it’s the perfect formula for becoming infected with HIV.

Though 99 percent of victims are female, young males and male-to-female transgendered persons are also victims of human trafficking for commercial sex. Due to the young age of the male victims, coupled with frequent and forced receptive anal intercourse, risk of HIV infection is very high within this population. In fact, the World Health Organization cited studies that have shown rates of HIV infection as high as 50 percent.

Unfortunately, very little additional information is available about sex workers and HIV rates. The stigma against commercial sex work in the U.S. and its related criminal penalties make reliable data hard to come by. Nevertheless, we know there is a relationship between HIV, commercial sex work, and human trafficking.

So what can you do? First, you can help victims of human trafficking by increasing your awareness. Be aware that September 18–26 is the Fourth Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Week, and tell your friends about this human rights issue. Know that not all prostitutes are willing participants, especially young girls and boys. Know that children under the age of 17 cannot legally consent to engage in sexual activity, so they are, by definition, being exploited by a pimp or “boyfriend.”

I’m not encouraging you to take matters into your own hands, as an intervention could be dangerous and needs to be handled by skilled professionals. If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 888/3737-888. It is a 24-hour toll-free hotline where you can make an anonymous report.

Also, you can help by supporting the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. They are a nonprofit organization whose mission is to confront modern-day slavery by educating the public, training professionals, and empowering the community to take action. Call them at 713/874-0290 or check out their website at www.houstonrr.org. Then write them a check.

Kelly A. McCann is chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. To learn more, please visit the AFH website at www.AIDSHelp.org.

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