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Esohe Aghatise, lawyer, PhD., founder, and director of Associazione Iroko Onlus in Turin, Italy, discusses job options with a Nigerian victim of sex trafficking. Photo by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department.

After amendments were considered, senate bill 1951 passed unanimously in the Massachusetts State House on June 30.  Senate bill 1951 is the senate version of the anti-human trafficking bill in Massachusetts.  The bill went to the state representatives where they decided that the bill should go into conference.  Now three members from each branch will meet to write a unified bill that will go to their respective branches to be voted on.  They will look at the two bills (SB 1951 and HR3483), and debate which aspects of the two bills that should remain in the unified bill.

This is where we, as the general public, need to tell conference committee members and leadership from the two branches what we need in this state to fight modern day slavery.  We don’t want a weak bill to come out of conference that does not address the fundamental issues of human trafficking while the politicians bask in their own praise about tackling human trafficking.

Some of the important aspects of the bill include preserving the establishment of a John school that will address the demand side of the problem.  A study by ABT revealed that the John school in San Francisco reduced recidivism by thirty percent with little cost to the city.

Other areas of concern include preserving language to train not only law enforcement officials, but also social service providers and the general public.  More non-government organizations should be part of the task force because they understand the hurdles that victims need to overcome to be able to stand on their own.

The safe harbor clause should cover all victims, not just minors.  Is it fair that a human trafficking victim that was enticed at aged 15 and caught at aged 18 by the police should be charged with a crime?  A criminal record could potentially prevent that victim from getting the job he or she needs to free themselves of a life of crime.  This is also why decreasing the penalties for selling sex by adult women should be considered as well.  It has proven effective in Sweden.

The human trafficking trust fund as outlined by the senate bill should be preserved.  More money will find its way to social service providers that will help victims.  The senate version also does a better job in protecting victim rights and services.  Some of that language can be found in Section 39K of SECTION 11 and Section 20M of SECTION 24.

I have drafted a letter that I have written myself that could be used to lobby members on the conference committee.

The members of the conference committee are:  Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford, Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Sen. Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster, Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty of Chelsea, Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton, and Rep. Elizabeth Malia of Jamaica Plain.  The speaker of the Senate is Therese Murray of Plymouth.  The speaker of the House is Robert DeLeo of  Winthrop.

If there are other aspects of the bill that you think is important, feel free to include them as well.  Your voice needs to be heard.  It is important that we contact them as soon as possible.  The State House will break for a summer vacation this Friday,  July 29, so we need to call, e-mail, and write as much as we can before then.

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As you may have heard, the Massachusetts state of representatives passed a human trafficking bill unanimously.  HR.3470 is the bill that is supported by AG Martha Coakley.  It criminalizes the activity, creates a taskforce, and allows for the court to order restitution to victims if they win the case.  While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to do more for the victims.  If we do not provide the services that they need, I believe that it is highly likely that they will fall back into slavery.  S820/S1921 sponsored by Mark Montigny will provide more services for victims.  We should ask for as much as we can now to be in a stronger bargaining position if we have to compromise.

S1921 appears to be S820 without the minimum sentencing and with a more defined Safe Harbor clause.  Safe harbor would allow prostitutes under the age of 18 to be considered victims and not a criminal if they are picked up by the police during a raid. This is important because they may have a criminal record that would be detrimental in living an independent life.

Human trafficking is as much a domestic problem as it is an international one.  Many girls who are caught up in this problem are runaways or those who have been kidnapped like the Quincy teen who was forced into slavery this past May.

My real concern is that traffickers will continue to be let go even if the Coakley bill does become law.  To prove that it is a trafficking case, you have to prove that the trafficker coerced the victim.  The victims’ testimony is critical in proving coercion.  Without it, the trafficker may get off with a lesser crime.  Without services, the victim may be less likely to testify in court because they may be forced to earn money back in the trade to support themselves. If it is a labor trafficking victim (agriculture especially), they may not even remain in the state.  This is one way I feel like we can get more victim services back into the bill to show the legislators that they may still fail in getting traffickers locked up.

We could ask for a line item that would provide money for a safehouse.  As it stands in S820, it would be subject to appropriation.  Another concern I have is that the Coakley bill mentions corporations would be subject to the new law.  Small businesses like nail salons, massage parlors, and restaurants are the ones that are often the ones that enslave their workers.  When I think of corporation, I think of Wal Mart, Marriott, or McDonalds, not the Korean Massage Therapy or Hadley Massage Therapy.  I want to make sure that those businesses too will be subject to the new law.

Here are the members of the senators on the ways and means committee.  Steven Baddour,  Jennifer Flanagan, Michael Moore, Karen Spilka, Brian Joyce, Thomas McGee, Richard Moore, and Gale Candaras have cosponsored Montigny’s S.820 bill at the start of the session. It is just as important to thank them and ask for their continued support for the bill.  S820 could go before the ways and means committee soon.  I hope that some of you would have the time to contact a few members of the ways and means committee to ask them to support 820 because victims deserve more.  Senate President Therese Murray should also be called/ written to.

I have drafted my own letter that I’ve sent to members on the committee.  This is the letter that Not For Sale, an organization I’m also a part of, is asking their members to send this letter.  Feel free to include your own personal reason why you think more victim provisions is important in the human trafficking bill.  In fact, that would even be better.

Thank you for your help in this important cause.  A hollow victory is not enough.  We must pass a bill that will give the victims a chance to stand on their own.

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The Polaris Project rates the 50 states of the United States based on their human trafficking legislation

The Polaris Project included Massachusetts as part of the dirty dozen of states because Massachusetts is weak on human trafficking.  Massachusetts is one of 5 states that do not have any human trafficking legislation.  We currently have legislation that could change that.

Senate Bill 58 has morphed into Senate Bill 2589 which is weaker than the previous bill but it is still a step in the right direction.

The new bill was passed unanimously by the senate and has been referred to the House where it was then referred to the Joint Committee on Rules where it currently sits.

It can still be moved forward in an informal setting if no one in the house objects to the bill.  It is now in the hands of the house.  However, the State House needs to vote on it by the end of the year.

The Ways and Means Committee curtailed anything that cost money so they changed the taskforce to a commission and probably cut down on programs like health and job programs.  They lost the minimum mandatory sentencing for the crime of human trafficking but they also increased the sentencing.  The trust fund will still be established.  It will be largely funded by money seized from traffickers.

I encourage to write or call your state representative and to members of this committee.  I have put together a draft letter that you can use.

Remember to vote tomorrow, Tuesday Sept. 14, in the Massachusetts primaries.

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I would like to thank Ashley Judd for being gracious enough to say a few words about the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA). She was a panelist at “Slavery and Human Rights” earlier this month with journalist and abolitionist, Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves.

The bill was introduced in the House as H.R.4594 by Rep. Bill Delahunt (MA-D) and it is currently co-sponsored by 71 representatives.  On the Senate side, S. 2982, has been introduced by Sen. John Kerry (MA-D), and this bill currently has 28 co-sponsors.

Violence against women takes many forms.  Rape is often used as a weapon in military conflicts such as the former states of Yugoslavia and in the Congo where the BBC has reported gang rapes are on the rise.

Another form of violence left Manzour, a mother of two from Pakistan, scarred for life after her in-laws threw acid at her causing her chin to fuse to her chest in a report found by the BBC.  The video contains disturbing images.

A reporter from The Economist recently reported the visit of Xinran Xue, a Chinese writer, who witnessed a birth in Shandong province and wrote about it in her book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother.

Xinran writes, “when we heard a moan of pain from the bedroom next door. . .The cries from the inner room grew louder- and abruptly stopped.  There was a low sob, and then a man’s gruff voice said accusingly:’Useless thing!’  The writer saw in horror a tiny foot poking from a slops pail after the baby girl was discarded by the midwife.  She tried to save the baby but was restrained by two policeman who told her, ‘Don’t move, you can’t save it, it’s too late.’  An older woman explained the rationale to the writer saying, “It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it.  Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son.  Girl babies don’t count.'”

This is an outrage, but you can do something about it.  You can help these women break free by asking your US Senator and US Representative to support IVAWA in an e-mail.  Writing personal letters are extremely effective.  One state politician revealed that they pay attention to an issue if they receive five letters on the same topic.  This is an achievable goal.

IVAWA would lend support to non-government organizations that would develop a strategy unique to the area as they work their way towards preventing violence against women.  It could be as simple as funding the education for girls or providing a micro-finance loan that would allow women to be economic independent.   Amnesty International’s website offers a range of actions that you can take to support this bill.

During the panel discussion, Ashley Judd talked about finding your outrage.  Once you found your outrage, your passion will rise up and empower you to make a difference.  My outrage is human trafficking,  a problem which has touched my own city, Quincy, where a Chinese brothel was recently discovered.

Activist and historian Howard Zinn, who passed away earlier this year, wrote, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change.  Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Change starts with you.  Be the change.

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Children like this young girl are prized in the carpet industry for their small, fast fingers. Defenseless, they do what they're told, toiling in cramped, dark, airless village huts from sunrise until well into the night. Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

Monday January 11 is International Human Trafficking Awareness Day.  President Obama has also declared that January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month culminating on National Freedom Day on February 1, the day the 13th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification.

You can raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking by letting your friends and family know about the problem in your facebook status.

For example you can post:

“is raising awareness about the problem of human trafficking on human trafficking awareness day (Jan. 11). Human trafficking is another name for slavery. The US State Department estimates that 17, 500 people are trafficked into the US annually. They can be maids or tomato pickers
in Florida. Copy and paste this message and update your facebook
status to raise awareness about this issue.”

You can clean up the wording to make it work for you.  You can include other actions like contacting your US representative or senator to ask them to join the Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.  You can suggest to buy fair trade chocolate for your loved one for Valentine’s Day because it is slave free.  Kristin Branson, a graduate student at UC San Diego, compiled a comprehensive list of slave free chocolate that you can use as a guide while shopping for your loved one.

You can comment to your own status update and post links with more information about human trafficking with the homepages for Free the Slaves, Not for Sale, or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. You can also post the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons’ 2009 report on Human Trafficking or the 2009 report put together by the United Nations.

You can also read survivors’ stories at the Polairs website.  You can read about a 15 year old Catholic girl from a Detroit suburb who was enslaved for two years by “Daniel”.  His cousins had photographed her being raped by Daniel and the pious girl didn’t want others to know about her rape so she did anything that they asked.  They drugged her and had her service their friends.

In other human trafficking news, the BBC recently reported that forced prostitution and human trafficking has become rampant in China as a result of the one child policy there.  Researcher Wang Guangzhou found that in some provinces, there are 130 boys born for every 100 girls.  Females are aborted because of the cultural preference for males and the belief that a male would be more likely to take care of a farm than a female.

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The kitty is not as innocent as it looks.  Behind the cute caricature lies a company which is arbitrarily raising interest rates and reducing credit limits to customer as a result of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 that was passed in May.  Interest rates from one bank can be raised because the consumer was late on another card in a practice called universal default.  It charges exorbitant late fees because it is profitable and because it can.  There is a lack of legislation to protect the customers as a result of the clout of the banking industry’s lobbyists.

These are a few lessons that I learned after watching PBS’s Frontline tonight.  Their latest piece is called the Card Game which you can watch online here.

I know this issue has nothing to do with human rights, but I was struck by one comment made by the producer/ reporter of the show.  Lowell Bergman has worked for 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and produced a number of Frontline shows.  He won a Pulitzer Prize for the NY Times in 2004 for his report on worker safety violations and the weakness of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  This report can be watched here with links to his articles for the Times here.

He writes that “a system has been developed where the affluent pays the least and the most vulnerable people pays the most”.  The simplicity and truth of that statement struck me while I was watching the piece.

Credit card banks profit the most from the poor who can’t make their payments on time and are charged high rates of interest and late fees while people who pay their entire balance on time benefit indirectly because they don’t have to pay annual fees or high interest rates.

I don’t defend people who are fiscally irresponsible, but I get angry when people are forced to pay for health care with credit cards because they don’t have insurance.  They then get stuck in a vicious cycle of debt at no fault of their own.

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Last week, I was able to attend a panel with a Kennedy School professor, a member of Physicians for Human Rights, and a photojournalist who worked in the Darfur region.  Here are some of the things that I picked up at the event.

Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale was in the region from in the region from 2003 until 2008. He traveled there about 12 times in that period to Chad, Darfur and Central African Republic.  He documented the plight of villagers as they tried to escape the janjaweed for refugee camps within Darfur and in Chad. He was kind enough to allow me to post a few of his pictures from that time on this blog.

He mentioned how at the sound of airfare or helicopters, entire villages would cluster around huge trees so that it would shield them from the bombs.  This was happening to hundreds of villages in Darfur while they were moving from their homes to the camps. It is hard to fathom until you see some of the pictures he has taken.

Sudanese displaced take refuge under a tree in Disa, Northern Darfur out of the heat of the day and out of view of the Antanov responsible for the bombing, there are estimated to be 2,000,000 displaced in Darfur who are trapped on the east, west and south by government troops and in the north by the desert wasteland which will certainly claim the lives of their livestock and weaker members of their family.  Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

Sudanese displaced take refuge under a tree in Disa, Northern Darfur out of the heat of the day and out of view of the Antanov responsible for the bombing, there are estimated to be 2,000,000 displaced in Darfur who are trapped on the east, west and south by government troops and in the north by the desert wasteland which will certainly claim the lives of their livestock and weaker members of their family. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

There is reason for them to hide as the Sudanese army/ janjaweed was throwing phosphorous bombs from the back of helicopters and planes.  The results are horrific, and I’ll let Marcus’s photo do the talking.

Abakar Tidjani 17 years old lies in bed in Abeche suffering from 3rd degree burns to 80% of his body. He was playing with a grenade when it exploded. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

Abakar Tidjani 17 years old lies in bed in Abeche suffering from 3rd degree burns to 80% of his body. He was playing with a grenade when it exploded. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

What seemed to outrage Marcus the most is that the refugees could live in make shift shelters waiting months for assistance outside the camps without any hope of assistance.  He asks, “how can the international community allow this to happen?” No human should have to feel like animals stripped of dignity.

Sudanese Refugees in Eastern Chad wait to register in the Tulum refugee camp. Supplies of food and water are sporadic and moving into the rainy season the supply route will get worse.  Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

Sudanese Refugees in Eastern Chad wait to register in the Tulum refugee camp. Supplies of food and water are sporadic and moving into the rainy season the supply route will get worse. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale

There are currently 3 million internally displaced people (IDP’s) in the region.  At the camps, families make the conscious decision to send the women to fetch for firewood even though they are raped by militia/ janjaweed, and even men from the camps during their journey because the alternative would be death for the men.

It is nearly impossible to prosecute any man of rape under current Sudanese law.  For a successful prosecution, the victim would need 4 male eyewitnesses to support your claim or 8 female eyewitnesses.  There is tremendous stigma associated with rape, so the women do not talk about it.  They fear that they will be accused of adultery or so defiled that they are not worth marrying.

Even though the Bush administration declared Darfur a genocide, the government was slow to act because Sudan was helping with US intelligence in the Middle East.  The Obama administration has been preoccupied with other issues like health care, the economy, and Afghanistan/ Pakistan.

Thirteen international non-government organizations were kicked out, and 3 Sudanese aid groups were shut down after the International Criminal Court issued its arrest warrant for president Omar Bashir.  This has left a tremendous void for the people.

The only way forward is to put pressure on China to cancel their contracts for  Sudanese oil and for Chinese weapons that Omar Bashir is providing the janjaweed.  This would be economically difficult for America to ask of China.

Ideally, the international community would force China’s hand using the ICC’s decision as its basis.  Money talks, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) could put pressure on China by forcing it to pay tax on key exports for dealing with a criminal.  China has an unfair economic advantage because other countries are not willing to deal with a human rights violator for its oil.

China should pay the consequences for its economic activity because their business is abetting a genocide.  Unfortunately, this will continue as it has made deals with the Guinean dictator despite soldiers involved in mass rape and killings during a protest earlier this year.

This can only be stopped if China is punished.  The question is, “Does the international community have the political will to make this happen?”  Unfortunately, we may already know that answer.

Special Thanks to Marcus Bleasdale for his work and for allowing me to post some of his pictures on our blog.  I encourage you to check out his website and take 10 minutes to watch a piece he did on the conflict in the Congo.

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