The Home Front and the Fight Against Human Trafficking – Part I: Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence
If you are reading this, you are probably already aware of the fight against human trafficking taking place all over the world. However, you may not know what you can do right in your neighborhood, even from your very own home, to join the fight against trafficking.
This is the first in a series sharing some practical tips for fighting trafficking on the home front.
“Domestic Violence.” To most people, this phrase conjures images of a battered wife or child cowering in a corner. Similar to human trafficking, domestic violence is often a “hidden crime,” happening behind closed doors and away from the public eye. Typically, domestic violence, like human trafficking, is defined by an imbalance of power. We see this when a vulnerable person suffers at the hands of someone who controls or manipulates them in a verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual context.
Researchers have identified correlations between the crimes of domestic violence and human trafficking. Two studies from the 1980s, by different research groups, found that between 70-80% of commercially sexually exploited youth had a histories of sexual abuse.1
A more recent London-based study referenced in the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report found that almost 70% of adult female trafficking victims experienced domestic violence prior to being trafficked.
After more than two decades, this statistic has remained virtually unchanged. Domestic violence is an indicator of, and directly leads to, vulnerability to human trafficking. As long as domestic violence continues to flourish, it will create vulnerability that human traffickers will exploit.
Domestic violence breaks relationships, leaving fear, shame, and depression in its wake. One trafficker stated in an interview that he would target girls who had “daddy issues,” referring to a broken father-daughter relationship.2 These girls were vulnerable to manipulation, intimidation, and, ultimately, control.
Ester Yu, Assistant USA Regional Director of ZOE International, noted, “Strong similarities exist in the coercive patterns that both abusers and traffickers use to gain and maintain control over a victim. Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and manipulation are often used to pressure or force a partner into engaging in commercial sex in what is called ‘intimate partner trafficking.’ Traffickers often lure, pressure, or force young girls into child trafficking by first acting as a boyfriend and someone who cares for them. This relationship soon turns controlling, abusive, and exploitative, leaving young girls in a situation where they have no choice and are dependent upon their abuser.”
An estimated 1 out of 4 women experience domestic violence on the level of severe physical violence by an intimate partner during her lifetime.3 However, for female victims of human trafficking, approximately 3 out of every 4 had already experienced domestic violence, before they were trafficked.
Domestic violence doesn’t just create victims of human trafficking, it also creates perpetrators. The study, "From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 ex-pimps in Chicago," by researchers Jody Raphael and Brenda Myers-Powell, found that 88% of those surveyed experienced physical abuse growing up, while 76% endured sexual abuse. In many cases, the abuse forced them to leave home early and turn to exploiting others to survive.3
As we stand against human trafficking, one very practical action we can take is to keep our eyes open for signs of domestic violence. These signs include5:
- Personality changes, like low self-esteem in someone who was always confident
- Constantly checking in with or overly worried about pleasing a partner
- Skipping out on work, school, or social outings for no clear reason
- Wearing clothes that don’t fit the season, like long sleeves in summer to cover bruises and giving excuses for injuries
- Sounds and signs of domestic violence or abuse
Signs of abuse can also be an indicator of someone who is currently being trafficked. Many human trafficking survivors experience physical abuse that can be visibly seen, similar to domestic violence.
Unfortunately, even when we see these signs of domestic violence, we sometimes lack the courage to act. We may believe the situation will get better on its own. It rarely does. We may believe that, if the person really wants to get out, they can. But in reality, victims are controlled through emotional manipulation as well as physical threats. Many feel fear and guilt. Some fear for their lives, the safety of their children, and even the well-being of their abusers. We may believe the situation doesn’t involve us, since it’s a private issue. But if we don’t speak up, who will?
Sometimes, we simply don’t know what to do or whom to contact (see the information below).
The truth is that you can make a difference. By speaking up, you may save a person from a lifetime of violence and possibly even rescue that person from a future of enslavement at the hands of a human trafficker.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) – online chat option available also
Additional Resources: TED Talk Videos about Human Trafficking & Abuse
Woman who was trafficked for 10 years shares how it started with her running away from abuse at home:
Child bride (a form of human trafficking) shares about abuse and recovery:
Why domestic violence victims (similar to human trafficking victims) don’t leave:
ZOE International, a U.S. 501(c)(3) NGO, has been combating human trafficking on the ground for 15 years in Southeast Asia and is active in Thailand, Japan, Australia, Mexico, and the United States.
1) Bagley & Young, 1987; Silbert & Pines, 1982
2) Nefarious Merchant of Souls movie