Prosecutors and victims’ advocates discussed human trafficking in its many and troubling guises at a panel discussion held to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 21.
Trafficking of women forced into commercial sex is a widespread problem around the globe, said Suzannah Phillips, clinical fellow and staff attorney with the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law.
Phillips cited estimates of some 20.5 million people trafficked around the world, of whom 4.5 million are forced into prostitution.
Law enforcement officials seldom see human trafficking as anything more than prostitution, the panelists said, while victims seldom identify themselves as being involved in trafficking.
While young women and girls can get duped into prostitution by boyfriends who don’t deserve their trust, others get literally trapped in horrific situations by relatives and even long-ago friends with whom they reconnect on facebook, said Hugh Organ, associate executive director of Covenant House Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania is among the weakest states in the U.S. when it comes to protecting young women, said Shea Rhodes, a member of the Project Dawn Court Oversight Committee. Teens as young as 14 or 15 commonly get arrested and charged with prostitution, Rhodes said, even though the commonwealth sets the minimum age for sexual consent at 16.
Because state and federal laws define human trafficking differently, it can be difficult to prosecute, said Pearl Kim, assistant district attorney in Delaware County. Since Pennsylvania’s anti-trafficking legislation took effect in 2006, Kim said, there have been just four convictions in the commonwealth.
Senate Bill 75, which would provide victim protection and evidentiary confidentiality would be “the most comprehensive legislation in the state of Pennsylvania in years,” Organ said, adding that it faces “an uphill battle.”
Professor Dan Filler moderated the discussion, which was organized by the International Law and Human Rights Society, the Criminal Law Society and the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association.