The following is written by Elizabeth Santeramo, League of Women Voters of New Jersey board member and chair of the League’s Women and Family Issues Committee.
January has been declared “Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month” by President Obama. As a member of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, I have had the privilege to attend a United Nations briefing on Human Trafficking where a former sex slave bravely shared her story. The devastating crime of human trafficking occurs in New Jersey’s urban areas and in the quaint small towns that pepper the state. The League of Women Voters supports human rights, and condemns all forms of slavery and the violence associated with it. We believe that the basic inalienable rights granted at birth must be protected and upheld.
Many of the massage parlors that line our Main Streets are storefronts for sex shops-harbingers of terror and abuse where trafficked women and girls are forced to perform sexual acts on patrons. Often, the victims live where they work, in dark and filthy conditions. They are not allowed to leave, take breaks, or do the routine things you and I do, like shop, visit a friend, or take a walk in the park. They are truly sex slaves.
It is odd to use the term “slave” in 2012. Yet, these victims are transported to our local towns from Newark, where they are trafficked from Brazil and parts of Asia. This is modern day slavery. Some of these victims are as young as 8 years old. In most cases, community members do not complain about the massage parlors because they are unaware of what lies behind the doors, and the establishment does not constitute a nuisance. Many may think it’s a typical “happy ending spa” but few realize that we are dealing with real women and girls who have been abducted from their homeland and tricked into thinking they will live the American dream. But we know better. They are living an American nightmare.
As a League member, I was invited to attend other briefings at the U.N. where I heard a survivor share her story of being sold at 16 in her home state of California. She was walking with her sister one day, when another woman and fellow Mexican-American approached her with a job opportunity to clean homes. In need of money, she accepted. After a long car ride, she was taken to a small dark room where she was chained and drugged. Her job turned out to be that of a sex slave for an older married Mexican man. After years of psychological, emotional and physical torture, she now shares her story to help other victims and make citizens aware of how to spot trafficking activity.
I viewed a slideshow presented by an attorney who works at Sanctuary for Families in NYC. The program showed the three key things to look for to help identify makeshift massage parlors: obscure establishment names, i.e. a number and a name; windows discreetly veiled with curtains or blinds to hide the interior from outside; and the inability for potential customers to book an appointment if they are not the “right” type of client for the parlor.
If you have come across such parlors that offer “massages” and you’re suspicious that they may hold victims of human trafficking, there are ways that you can help. You can save a woman or a young girl by learning how to identify trafficking in your neighborhood, how to help a victim, and how to report it anonymously. The League of Women Voters of New Jersey partners with Polaris Project to help prevent these crimes. Polaris Project provides a hotline for the public to anonymously report suspicions and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey is looking for members who are interested in working to stop human trafficking in our state. For more information, please visit www.lwvnj.org and www.polarisproject.org.