Cook County, Ill., State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has made human trafficking a priority. At a recent program in Chicago sponsored by the International Human Rights Committee of the American Bar Association Section of International Law, she told the audience made up of representatives from law enforcement, social service agencies and advocacy groups that Chicago has become a crossroads for commercial sexual exploitation.
“Sex Trafficking from the Boardroom to the Classroom: Prevention, Intervention & Prosecution” was the third program in a series that highlights the growing international problem of human trafficking—an issue that is reverberating in local communities across the country.
Yet, as Alvarez noted, “Most average citizens do not realize that it is happening here.”
To help raise awareness as well as to address the problem, Alvarez created a special unit within the organized crime division that focuses on intervention and prevention—with special attention to help victims of the crime.
Among its work, the unit has been aggressive in enforcing the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which Alvarez said is one of the most comprehensive and sweeping pieces of legislation in this country to deal with trafficking.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez (foreground)
The law—which has brought charges for 48 people in Cook County in less than two years—is particularly noteworthy because it places emphasis on nabbing the pimps who put some 6,000 children to work as prostitutes on the streets each year.
“No one’s going to tell me that a 10-, 11-, 12-year old girl is out there prostituting herself,” said Alvarez, underscoring the importance of decriminalizing underage prostitution. “We know that she’s put out on the street by someone who is making money of this and victimizing her.”
Jennifer Greene, policy advisor on violence against women issues for Alvarez’s office, said the human trafficking initiative’s emphasis on victims’ concerns has made it a national model.
Addressing demand in the main concern for representatives of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, who also spoke at the program. CAASE’s mission is unique in that it focuses on “individuals that perpetrate, profit from, or support sexual exploitation.” The organization created the End Demand Illinois campaign to shift law enforcement’s attention to sex traffickers and people who buy sex, while creating a network of support for sex trade survivors.
To facilitate the efforts of CAASE and others, the Illinois Predator Accountability Act permits victims to sue their pimps or customers. But since no law suit has ever been brought under the law that was passed in 2006, the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services is looking for volunteers. Board member and international lawyer Tianne Bataille said, “We don’t know what the challenges are going to bring. We fear organized crime could have huge budgets for defendants.”
Bataille estimates that traffickers earn between $250,000 and $500,000 per year, before taxes. “That provides enormous incentive for behavior to continue,” she said.
Building awareness of the problem is key to finding solutions, and CAASE is going into schools to educate students on the ills that trafficking creates. CAASE recently launched “Empowering Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation,” a curriculum aimed at high school-aged boys. Rachel Durchslag, founder and executive director of CAASE, said the program is designed to teach them about the harms of prostitution and to enlist them as allies in the movement to end violence against women and girls.
Joining the program via videoconference was Gunilla Eckberg, a Swedish-Canadian lawyer and former advisor on trafficking to the Swedish government, where prostitution is officially recognized as a form of male sexual violence against women and children. “We know from international experience that when you target the demand, you will have a very visible and immediate effect on the number of victims of trafficking,” she said.
Maria Woltjen, director and founder, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago, served as moderator for the program.
The fourth program in the series, “Not for Sale: Global Responses to Sex and Labor Trafficking” will be held April 19, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. during the Section of International Law 2012 Spring Meeting in New York City. For more information, click here.