By Reed Hoppe
While most eleven-year old girls wake up and attend school each day, Maria faces a daily horror most of us could never imagine. Instead of doing homework and playing with her friends, Maria is repeatedly raped by men who are allowed to do so by her own parents. Maria is a victim of human trafficking and, sadly, her story is not uncommon.
I first became aware of the issue of human trafficking after watching a special on Dateline NBC. The program featured the work of the International Justice Mission (IJM.org), a faith-based human rights agency that seeks to free victims of human trafficking and prosecute the perpetrators. I was horrified by the issue of sexual exploitation and bonded labor. The staggering statistics broke my heart.
With the help of organizations such as IJM, human trafficking has received vital media attention. The increased attention has led to increased pressure on governmental officials to intervene and create legislation designed to monitor and combat trafficking and to prosecute the people responsible for enslaving others.
In spite of the media attention, most people do not realize that the trafficking of persons is currently the third largest criminal enterprise in the world, ranking just below the sale of drugs and weapons. It is estimated that the total market value of all trafficked persons exceeds $32 billion each year. The International Labor Organization estimates that 12.3 million people are trapped in forced labor, bonded labor, and commercial sexual servitude. Fifty-six percent of those are women and young girls.
Human trafficking is manifested in a variety of ways. Some people are promised a job in another town or country, then forced to work in inhumane conditions for little or no money. Salt mines, rock quarries, gold mines, brothels, and other types of labor are common examples. The victims are threatened, beaten, and face the possibility of death if they attempt to escape.
The current economic crisis is only causing the problem of human trafficking to grow. With unemployment on the rise worldwide, many people are more vulnerable to being trafficked than before, particularly in developing nations.
The Mission Society is joining the fight to combat human trafficking through the work of Doug and Brooke Burns in Costa Rica. They are in the process of opening a safe house for girls who have been rescued from sexual exploitation. It is called, “Casa Lavinia,” which means “home of a girl who is loved and cared for.”
In Costa Rica, the trafficked women and girls generally live in their own home, as opposed to being kidnapped and held hostage as in many other nations. Most are prostituted against their wills by neighborhood gangs or their own families. Because Costa Rica is a leading sex tourism location, many girls are regularly bussed to resorts on the coast, where they are then prostituted to foreign men.
Brooke Burns discovered that, even when police were able to rescue girls from sexual exploitation situations, there were no aftercare facilities to which they could take them. She began to pray about opening a safe house which would include an aftercare program for the victims.
Brooke is now working with young women like the one who was sold for the night by her father in exchange for a supply of PVC pipe. Yet another was consistently drugged by her mother, who allowed men to rape her daughter for money from an early age.
The home which has become Casa Lavinia was donated by a Costa Rican couple who caught the vision for helping these young women. Still others have become involved as well, such as the Vineyard Church pastor in San Jose who is adopting the safe house as an extension ministry of the church. Church members can volunteer their time to teach trades, serve as mentors, or become foster parents when the girls are ready to leave the safe house. There are plans to have medical and dental care available for the girls, as well as professional counselors who can help the girls deal with the traumatic effects of being trafficked.
“We don’t want this home to be a long-term care facility. We want it to be a place of rescue and restoration, and then to have an exit strategy for each girl to send them back into the community—whether that is a home within their family of origin or a foster home through the church,” remarks Brooke.
With the work that is being done to combat human trafficking, there is hope for a handful of victims. Not only can their abusers be brought to justice, but victims can be freed from their lives of slavery to experience healing. “My hope and prayer is that Casa Lavinia will be the epicenter of care by a network of Christians working together to provide a continuum of care and love for the girls,” says Brooke.
Reed Hoppe is the associate director of communications for The Mission Society and is a deacon in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. You can donate to the Burnses through The Mission Society’s website (www.themissionsociety.org), and pray for their ministry.