From Iraq to North Dakota: The Global Sex-Trafficking Crisis

Recent reports have surfaced about the sexual enslavement of women and girls by the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), an extremist group that has overtaken territories in Northern Iraq and Syria. Video footage appears to show ISIS men sitting around talking and laughing before they bid to purchase women and girls; price tables for purchasing women have been released by the group, showing what amounts to a modern-day slave auction. As many as 4,000 Yazidi women and girls, a religious minority in Northern Iraq, are currently estimated to be imprisoned by ISIS as sex slaves.

U.S. women have also been targeted by ISIS.The world recently learned that a 27-year-old American aid worker named Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS in 2013 and subsequently killed, was repeatedly raped by the head of ISIS during her one-and-a-half years in captivity.

What you might not know is that sexual slavery isn’t only happening overseas.

An article published earlier this month in Marie Claire reports that sex trafficking of women is occurring in virulent ways in the U.S., too. North Dakota has been hit particularly hard. In that state, oil and gas companies have set up shop over the past few years, and towns have become inundated with camps of workers, mostly men. Along with this influx of workers has come an uptick in problems, specifically trafficking of women.

“If you’re working in the oil industry, you see what’s happening here in terms of a boom,” Christina Sambor, a lawyer and anti-trafficking activist with North Dakota group FUSE (a Force to end hUman Sexual Exploitation), told Marie Claire. “But if you work in human services, you view it in terms of a natural disaster.”

According to Marie Claire, when women’s shelters in the area started reporting that they were seeing victims they hadn’t seen before, “…a 16-year-old sold by her mother for drug money, a young woman with ‘property of’ and a man’s name tattooed across her chest,” a police investigation ensued. What it found was startling: 70 percent of the women had been for sale in a different state the previous week.

“They were coming from Milwaukee, from the Twin Cities, from Chicago, from Mexico and south of there, and elsewhere in the country,” said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. “Traffickers bring these women in, and they will be there for a little while—and then they move them out and bring in a new group.” 

This past April, the efforts of Sambor and other activists paid off when North Dakota’s legislature voted in favor of a suite of anti-trafficking bills.

But while laws are important, it’s the underlying attitude of misogyny that has to change.

According to Equality Now’s global sex-trafficking fact sheet, “A holistic and comprehensive strategy is needed to combat sex trafficking effectively.” The organization reports that at least 20.9 million adults and children are currently being held in commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor. Of these, 98 percent are women or girls.

Equality Now indicates that there is much work to be done. To fight trafficking, eliminating gender discrimination and curbing the demand for commercial sex are essential. In addition, gender inequality and discriminatory laws that trap women in poverty and fail to protect them from violence must also be changed.

Like activists in North Dakota, Equality Now has had successes: It spearheaded anti-trafficking laws in Brazil and India, and successfully advocated for the first U.S. law (in Hawaii) to criminalize sex tourism. Steps have been taken by the White House to curb sex trafficking, too. In May, President Obama signed into law the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which requires the Department of Justice to better train prosecutors and law enforcement officers who handle trafficking cases, among other anti-trafficking measures.

State and national successes aside, the trafficking of girls and women is a global crisis and one that exists because of a host of underlying conditions. Michelle Bachelet, former U.N. Women Executive Director and president of Chile, describes what lies at the root of the crisis: “The commodification of human beings as sexual objects, poverty, gender inequality and subordinate positions of women and girls provide fertile ground for human trafficking.”

The sexual slavery of girls and women is an outrage that the world not only shares, but must also solve.

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Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at her at