By Chryso D’Angelo
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10 (IPS/TerraViva) â€” Maria Suarez was 15 years old when she crossed the Mexican border and entered the U.S. legally to live with her sister in the states. A few months later, she was a slave.
“A man bought me for 200 dollars,” Maria told TerraViva. She was lured to his house by a woman promising work. “He told me that if I ever tried to leave, he’d kill my family. He said he knew witchcraft, then he cut my long hair and made dolls and put them around the house and in the cemetery. He said the only way I would get out was deadâ€¦and I believed him.”
After enduring five years of rape, torture, and emotional turmoil, Maria’s captor was killed by a neighbour, but she was arrested for the crime and sentenced to 25 years to life.Â
There is no way of knowing exactly how many people like Maria are bought and sold on the black market. According to Soroptimist International, A Global Voice for Women, the numbers are estimated to be between 12.3 and 27 million.
However, representatives of the group sent a message of hope on Monday at a conference titled “Stop Trafficking â€“ 44â€¦â€¦Action, Advocacy and Progress Around the World Through Local and Global Efforts” during the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which runs from Mar. 1 to 12.
One sizeable triumph against human trafficking is the improvement of legislation, according to Leigh Ellwood-Brown, president of Soroptimist International for the Federation of the South West Pacific.
The number of countries that have implemented the U.N. Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons has doubled over the last few years, according to the United Nations Global Report on Human Trafficking, 2009. The number of convictions against traffickers has also risen.
“Those countries that have implemented the appropriate legislation are moving the trafficking and Commercial Sex Industry (CSI) out of their borders,” Ellwood-Brown told TerraViva.
Maria Suarez agrees that law enforcement has come a long way since her capture in 1976. The 50-year-old was freed in 2004 after her case was reopened and she was acquitted in a new trial. Today, she speaks to groups throughout California that include victims of trafficking, police, fire officials, and district attorneys in an effort to educate.
Ellwood-Brown stresses the importance of women sharing their stories, as long as they feel safe to speak out. She referred to the success of a Soroptimist programme in Thailand during which former slaves returned to their villages to talk to men and women about the harsh realities of human trafficking.
“The presence of these women in the villages sent a powerful message because there was a visual – a real, human story about what traffickers do to women – to that woman standing right there,” Ellwood-Brown told TerraViva.
But, there is still a long road ahead. Ellwood-Brown noted the growing organised crime network run by both male and female traffickers, which are becoming even more deceptive.
“If a victim of trafficking is offered ‘release’, it is usually on condition to go home to their town/village and recruit a specific number of new members,” she said. “They usually have blackmailed them with the security & lives of their families.”
Norma Ramos, Esq., executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, added that many programmes strive to generate income for women by teaching them a craft or skill so they can avoid prostitution to survive, but it’s not enough to fix the problem.
“Ending poverty helps, but there will always be a demand and there will always be greed,” she said. “So as long as that triangle exists, there will be trafficking.” Ramos called for more people to come forward and speak out.
Maria Suarez is answering that call – and taking it seriously. “My dream is to make videos in different languages and go to villages where people don’t know about human trafficking,” she says. “I want to do something productive for people who are in the same shoes I was in thirty years ago when all my goals and dreams as a teenager were taken away. I want girls to have a good life and not be like me. The only way I can keep living is to keep working and educating others to make sure this ends.”