Let’s Address Human Trafficking Through a Human Rights Framework
By Deborah J. Richardson
Atlanta has been on the forefront of recognizing and addressing domestic sex trafficking for almost two decades. One thing we know is that ending child sex trafficking calls for a shift in behaviors and actions of adults. The concept of a child, implicit in virtually all our moral and legal practices, is that a child is a person who is in some fundamental way not developed, but rather developing. It is the responsibility of adults to protect, nurture and educate.
Children who runaway or are thrown away face the highest risk of being trafficked, they come to the attention of traffickers in public places like bus and subway stations. Children from middle class homes are lured by traffickers who are trolling malls and the internet. However, there are adults in many situations who are failing in their role of protector of children. Even children in the foster care system and/or being neglected by a parent, interface with an adult who has a responsibility for their care and protection such as teachers, workers in youth programs, coaches, faith leaders, as example. Community-wide commitments by adults to create a safety net for all children, not just my child, are warranted.
More conversations devoted to recognizing, respecting and giving voice to at-risk children or survivors to rethink and expand strategies are needed.
A girl who is ignored or neglected by her parents (and this happens across all economic strata), marginalized by the adults who could be her protectors and judged by her expressed behavior versus her pain and negative life experience, is the prime, recruitment target for a trafficker. She experiences what has been theorized as “institutional expression of social disrespect.”
As one of its early advocates, I call to question: why are we still having to address human trafficking? Perhaps new insight and responses are needed.
What might a community response to trafficking look like if it was based on the principles of human rights? As a society, may we agree that children have a right to: good health and adequate nourishment; security against violence and sexual assault; the opportunity to imagine, think and reason; to love those who love and care for them and not have their emotional development blighted by fear; and finally, to laugh, play, and enjoy recreational activities?* A community that agrees on these basic principles for children will plan a forward facing and aspirational framework to promote justice; which is opposite to our current political and civic responses which are grounded in a liability model –where an issue is addressed when the harm occurs.
A focus on human rights call us to question, then address, the structural injustices in our communities—poverty, low performing schools and unhealthy living conditions.
Institutions are then called to shift their focus from the best interest of the child to a base interest for the child—-giving priority to securing a decent level of attention and resources for all children.
We have a universal, moral imperative to end all human trafficking, especially the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children. By limiting our focus to a criminal justice and public policy response, we have failed to stem the tide of countless of children who are exploited, severely impaired or killed at the hands of their trafficker or predator.
A human rights approach addressing structural injustices recognizes and respects the vulnerability of children and will accelerate justice on their behalf—leading to more secure and viable communities for us all.
Deborah J. Richardson is the Executive Vice President of The National Center of Civil and Human Rights and oversees The Center’s International Human Trafficking Institute.
* Nussbaum, M. (2003). “Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice