Friday, January 17, 2014

International Boulevard

Since it is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and I only briefly mentioned the issue in my prior post, I thought I would share about a side of the problem close to home. Zoe Simone Yi and Rebecca Dharmapalan, two teenagers from Oakland School of the Arts, recently won the 2013 Girls Impact the World Film Festival with their 5 minute documentary on child sex trafficking in Oakland. The film in called "International Boulevard," which also happens to be the same street of the clinic / community center where I volunteer once a week.

I had noticed many young women on the street during my 3/4 mile walk from the BART each week, and I wondered if any of them were trafficked youth. Unfortunately, my intuition was likely correct. On any given night, it is estimated that 100 children participate in commercial sex work on International Boulevard alone, with reports siting some as young as 12 years old. In 2009, Oakland was labeled a high-intensity child prostitution area. Furthermore, the Bay Area as a whole, which includes San Francisco and San Jose, is believed to account for as much as 20% - 40% of sex trafficking in the United States. My understanding is that many of the U.S. citizen children that are trafficked within the country are runaways and/or foster youth fleeing from potentially abusive situations to begin with, which has particularly caught my attention as a CASA for foster youth.

A friend and coworker pointed out that the "International Boulevard" film focuses largely on police perspectives of the problem, and that bothered her. I definitely believe it is important for police to be aware of the complicated issues involved in commercial sex work, and I am happy to see that efforts are being made to get help for children trapped in sex trafficking, rather than criminalizing their circumstances. At the same time, prostitution in general is a very stigmatized profession, with an often strained relationship to law enforcement, so it would have been great to hear more from those who are able to talk about their own lived experiences, to give voice to the actual individuals affected. Of course, this may have been difficult to incorporate in this particular short film, given that (1) the producers are themselves youth, (2) victims are minors, and (3) even now-adult former victims may prefer to maintain their privacy. Alternatively, perhaps local community members or advocates from local nonprofits - both those that provide healing services and those that fight to prevent future trafficking - might have added another perspective to the mix. Although the police necessarily have an integral role in ending human trafficking, there are many other groups also working to meet the needs of youth in the context of sex trafficking. Furthermore, many of the best solutions to community problems involve community members expressing the strengths and needs they see, brainstorming interventions and preventive measures, and taking ownership and responsibility for implementing of the best ideas. My main point is that in considering the issue of sex trafficking, we should keep in mind that there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes trafficking, a wide array of opinions on how it can best be stopped, and a host of varied experiences by the women (and men) who have lived through it.

For those looking for a little more breadth of information from a few other perspectives, I highly recommend "Oakland struggles to protect children from sex trafficking," an article from Aljazeera America.

Regardless of the above critique of the short documentary, I think it is commendable that local youth are getting involved in important problems and raising awareness. And what a testament to their hard work that they won first prize! I hope that their documentary, and all of the press that the Bay Area has received for the child sex trafficking problems here, will lead to better programs and policies to prevent trafficking, as well as an increase in awareness and action among teachers, families, friends, neighbors, law enforcement, community organizations, and activists to end this injustice!

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