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Millions made on the back of a slave

by Elizabeth Phillips

Every year, $32 billion are made on the back of a slave.

This is a staggering number to consider. I’m a junior in high school, and I was sure I had learned that slavery ended a long time ago. But that misconception couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Douglas High School was recently honored with a visit from Nevada’s Attorney General, Catherine Cortez Masto, who has made it her mission to inform citizens about, and to change the tragedy that is human trafficking. Before her visit, I’m sure human trafficking was low on students’ list of interesting topics – I know I paid it little thought. Masto’s introduction made it clear that this lack of information is not unusual; she stated that when she was my age, “human rights were the farthest thing from my mind.” But this does not mean that it is the farthest thing from our lives, then or now. Twenty-seven million people are made victims of this atrocious crime every year worldwide, and more than a million of those are sexually exploited children. These are young men and women, torn from their families, and made the slave of someone else for the rest of their lives. And though this is an international plague, there are victims coming from the area we live in.

One story in particular stuck out to me. A few years back, right here in Northern Nevada, a 12-year-old girl was recovered from a pimp – beaten, bloody, and broken.

Twelve years old. I was having sleepovers with my buddies and training a puppy when I was 12. My biggest worry was an upcoming history test. This young girl lived in poverty and was mentally and physically abused, manipulated, exploited, and torn apart until she had no choice but to sell her body for sex.

There were other survivors’ stories in Masto’s presentation. She spoke of a teenage girl, whose “boyfriend” bought her nice things and was kind to her parents when he came over to eat dinner with them. They both liked him, and thought he was a real catch. But slowly, things began to change. Her clothes and jewelry were different; she cut her hair; she wore darker make-up; she started staying out late and drinking and smoking. Then one day, she came home with a tattoo. It turned out, that sweet boy was a pimp selling her out as a prostitute, and the tattoo was his way of branding her like an animal to put on the market. This is a typical method, and all typical signs, but the parents didn’t recognize it until much too late. Police eventually caught the pimp, and the parents tried to rehab that 17-year-old girl. But even when the man that had stolen her life from her was locked up in jail, and she had the chance to walk away from him, she couldn’t. She visited him every week. She didn’t even testify against him in court for sex trafficking.

I was shocked. The power these men hold over their victims is so complete that it can even transcend iron bars and slabs of cement. The girls don’t leave them – can’t leave them, because they have no one and nowhere to go to for help. If they try to run away, other pimps recognize the tattoo and return them. If they go to the police and the pimp is arrested, he gets out on parole and talks her out of giving a testimonial. The cycle is only perpetuated.

The most devastating part is that human trafficking, including sex trafficking, wasn’t even against the law until the Polaris project was founded in 2002 – and the punishments are still far too light. That pimp will get out in a year or two, and all of his victims will be within his grasp again – both literally and lawfully. Young people, just like me, enslaved to someone who isn’t even considered a serious criminal.

That’s what Masto is trying to change. Her bill AB67 will give the prosecutor of a sex trafficking crime the right to record a victim’s testimony before the pimp gets out of jail on probation and convinces them to withhold a testimony. It will also allow prosecutors to enforce steeper penalties for what is, and what ought to be, thought of as a heinous offense, and offer the victims the support and rehabilitation they need.

Even walking out of the presentation a few weeks ago, many people had already forgotten the name of the bill, or what it was attempting to change. But for me, Masto’s haunting words were on the forefront of my mind for the rest of the day. I looked around me in the hallways and wondered at what I didn’t know and couldn’t see.

At the end of one of the victim’s testimonial video, the words, “Now you know. Let the world know.” scrolled across the screen. For the sake of these girls, I wrote this letter to let my small corner of the world know about these atrocities; I want those young ladies to be on people’s minds and in their thoughts and exposed before their watchful eye, just as my eyes were opened by this presentation. I don’t want them to be forgotten or ignored as another tragedy in a bleak world. I don’t want them to be noticed only after they’re too far gone. I want them to be saved, and I want each of us to play a part, even if that part is only to stand in silent vigilance. Because, as sad as it is, the fight against slavery is still far from over, and the war for human rights must always be fought anew.

Elizabeth Phillips is a Gardnerville resident and a Douglas High School student.