In Our View: Put Brakes on Trafficking

Congress must battle the scourge of sexual exploitation of children

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In addition to the horrific inhumanity involved, the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria resonates on many levels and touches upon many social and political issues. A group called Boko Haram, led by Abubakar Shekau, on April 15 stormed the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Nigeria and kidnapped an estimated 276 students. You likely have heard about this — in part because of a global awareness campaign using #BringBackOurGirls — and the incident has spawned several talking points:

• The fact that, in many parts of the world, the idea of educating girls is viewed as a threat. As Malcolm Potts and Alisha Graves wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times: “As despicable as Shekau is, he does understand something: The schooling of girls has the power to transform a culture, which makes it a threat to his kind of repressive fundamentalism.” “Boko Haram,” by the way, loosely translates into “Western education is sinful,” and in a video release May 4, Shekau says, “Girls must give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12.”

• The fact that Boko Haram is a fundamentalist Muslim organization, which points out the continuing danger presented by religious zealots. Yet it is important to remember that Boko Haram represents a majority of Muslims about as well as the Westboro Baptist Church reflects the beliefs of a majority of Christians.

• And the question of the United States’ role as the world’s police force. The U.S. is providing assistance in a search for the girls, but it remains sensitive to the desires of the Nigerian government. As The Washington Post reported, in the past “the government had also brushed off American advice about using economic and political outreach to disaffected Muslims in the northern parts of the country.”

But as the search for the girls continues, from a local standpoint the most relevant issue might be the all-too-close-to-home topic of human trafficking. As U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in The Columbian on April 27: “Human trafficking isn’t just a problem in distant parts of the world. More than 100,000 girls are caught up in sex trafficking every year in the U.S. … According to the FBI, trafficking is the fastest-growing category of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.”

Herrera Beutler highlighted four bills pending in Congress that are designed to target human trafficking. The bills variously would provide additional resources for law enforcement conducting sex-trafficking investigations; would treat commercially exploited youth as victims rather than criminals; would crack down on advertising of sexual services involving minors; and would provide protection for children in foster care, a particularly vulnerable population.

The reality of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children has received much attention in recent years, and former Congresswoman Linda Smith has been among the leaders in the fight through Vancouver-based Shared Hope International, an organization she founded in 1998. The group’s mantra: “100,000 American children are exploited through prostitution each year. You can stop it.”

Stopping it, however, will require more than awareness. Members of Congress should move to pass some combination of the bills before them, providing authorities with the teeth they need to chomp upon this scourge.