Monday, January 10, 2011

Task force: reframe Duluth’s acceptance of prostitution to rejection of human trafficking

Caption: Lt. Scott Drewlo of Duluth Police Department, gestures while speaking about human trafficking during a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters in November. From left to right are Shunu Shrestha - Trafficking and Prostitution Task Force Coordinator, PAVSA, Kelly Martin-Kurtz - Outreach Coordinator, PAVSA, Bree Bussey -AIHCO and Scott Drewlo -Duluth Police Department.

By Naomi Yaeger-Bischoff

For most people, Duluth means ships, trees, tourism, and Lake Superior. It’s unlikely that the average person realizes that Duluth is also a city identified as the entry point for young women, especially Native American girls under the age of 18, to a life of being trafficked.

For years, support staff at the Duluth domestic violence shelters for Native American women have heard stories of women being beaten because they wouldn’t sleep with their boyfriend’s friends. These women will often not see themselves as being trafficked, but by Minnesota law a person can never consent to being sexually exploited. Under state law, anyone who had been prostituted by others is considered a trafficking victim.

Each year, the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs and the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force produces an annual report to the Minnesota Legislature and provides training on identifying trafficking victims, and methods for promoting the safety of trafficking victims.
A 2009 report titled “Shattered Hearts: the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls in Minnesota,” uses data from interviews with 95 Native women and girls. The results suggest that the trafficking of Native girls into prostitution is a significant, though rarely discussed, problem.

Overall, 40 percent of incoming clients reported involvement in some type of commercial sexual exploitation, and 27 percent reported activities defined as sex trafficking under Minnesota law.
Anyone can become a trafficked human being, but several factors combine to determine an individual’s level of vulnerability. Foster children and former foster children are targets of sexual trafficking in disproportionately high numbers, as are people in poverty.

This fall a task force to stop human trafficking was created through a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. This is a three-year grant made possible through the American Indian Housing Community Organization and the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA). Shunu Shrestha, has been hired to coordinate the task force.

Shrestha, with masters degree in human rights from Columbia University, is originally from Nepal where extensive poverty and difficult living conditions have fueled human trafficking. While countries like Nepal struggle to protect their most vulnerable citizens, it is less well known that these problems also exist in the United States.

Many organizations, including the Hillsider, have signed on for the task force.
In November, speakers for PAVSA (Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault), AIHCO (American Indian Community Housing Organization) and the Duluth police department presented a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The panel and audience raised several key questions:

• Mainstream society may view these women as prostitutes. How do we educate society that prostitution is not a choice, but a decision made in desperation? Can we reframe thinking of a prostitute as a criminal to a victim?

• Many young women have been forced to have sex for money. In our legal system they are victims while they are under-aged, but the moment they turn 18, they become criminals. Is there a way to have the legal system see women as trafficked victims and help them rather than arrest them?

• Why aren’t more men who are using the services arrested? Sweden has seen a dramatic decrease in prostitution since legalizing prostitution but making the purchase of sex illegal.

• If a person is forced to perform tasks under the threat of violence against herself or her family, if she is forced to work and not allowed to come and go as she pleases and otherwise treated like property, then she is a slave. But how many people in the United States see what a pimp is doing as no different than a slave master?

When they think of Duluth, many in social services and law enforcement think of “the Duluth model,” a proactive approach to domestic violence that began here and is now used around the United States. Perhaps with time and effort, they will one day also think of a “Duluth model” for dealing with human trafficking, a compassionate and effective model that starts here and grows.

For more information phone Shrestha at 218-726-1442 or email