One night in the fall of 2002, I witnessed the horrific crime of people selling children in a brothel. Some friends and I wanted to learn more about the issue of child trafficking and see how we could be helpful. We connected with an organization that was actively working to combat human trafficking. We visited one of their operating centers in Southeast Asia where investigators were going undercover into a brothel where they believed children were being exploited. They invited us to join them – which in retrospect, we’ve learned isn’t a good idea and could potentially harm victims.
We found ourselves in a room looking through a glass wall where there were young girls wearing red dresses. Each girl had a number pinned to her dress — even the dignity of a name was stripped away. On my side of the glass wall, menus were handed out with prices for different sex acts that listed each girl by number. I struggled to comprehend the traumatic situation I was witnessing. The children sat motionless, watching cartoons on crackling TVs.
Only one girl wasn’t watching the cartoons. She was staring at us with a piercing gaze.
I’ll never forget the look on her face: Was it fight? Or was it panic, the hypervigilance that so often follows trauma? Maybe it was disgust. In my heart, I hoped it was defiance.
Her number was
We thought we were going to see the issue of human trafficking that night. Instead, we saw a person. That moment changed something in me. Ever since, it’s challenged me to not look away.
To see the one in the midst of the overwhelming numbers. The person instead of the cause. The human in human trafficking.
At that time, most people had never heard the term “human trafficking,” but that was changing. It had been one year since the U.S. State Department released the first report on human trafficking, two years since it was defined as a crime by the United Nations. In the early days of anti-trafficking efforts, descriptions of the crime were both over-simplified and sensationalized. But since that night, we’ve also learned that there’s a lot more complexity. Trafficking doesn’t just happen to girls. It doesn’t just happen “over there.” It’s more often for labor than sex. Not everyone is trapped in obvious ways, like locked doors. And often, a “rescue” isn’t the only (or best) way to freedom.
Some time later, when enough evidence was collected, local authorities conducted a raid on this brothel. But the children, including the girl who wore #146 were no longer there. We don’t know where she is now, but we hope she’s been able to find freedom from exploitation and is living a vibrant life.
After that trip in 2002, we founded Love146. As we’ve built our response, we continue to wrestle with the tension of an urge to take immediate action with the time it takes to be thoughtful, so that our efforts can be effective and sustainable. It takes time to listen and recognize that we don’t and can’t have all of the answers. Today, Love146’s global work preventing child trafficking and journeying with survivors is informed by our approach of being learners.
The trafficking and exploitation of children is one of the most severe human rights abuses imaginable. But from children we’ve journeyed with, we’re learning to persevere and to hope. We’re learning the power of love. Love opens our eyes, love gives us the courage to pursue justice, and love continually reminds us to be more human.
“…Power without love is reckless and abusive… Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr.