by: Abigail Eernisse \\ originally published in H3R Business Magazine in September 2021
What if we could build a world where women are free? The kind of freedom that allows each human soul to step into their unique destiny. It was this question and a spiritual awakening that compelled me to begin my anti-trafficking work seven years ago. I packed my bags and headed to Southeast Asia with a cohort of young fiery women just like me. We were eager, vivacious, and ready to see how we could make an impact on the world. I found myself walking through the humid streets of bustling cities filled with spicy food and smiling people. Soon, this typical church kid found herself awakened to stories of women within the commercial sex industry. Like turning a kaleidoscope, in each culture and community trafficking looked different. Today I am taking you with me to see her so that hopefully our collective voice will change tomorrow’s story. I’m ready to take you by the hand as we journey to see...
Preeda’s* (PREE-dah) dark eyes looked past me as she told me how she arrived in this bustling city. She grew up in a rural Thai village, the daughter of a rice farmer. Last year, her family had a bad crop that left them in significant debt. Preeda knew what she had to do; as the oldest daughter in her culture, she was responsible for financially providing for the family. One day, a man from a neighboring village came by on a motorbike and promised her a job as a maid in the city; she said "yes." Preeda was filled with hope that this job would save her family's farm and make all their lives better. She got on a bus and as the rice fields passed in the distance, she fell asleep dreaming of a better tomorrow. Her face sank as she began to describe what she saw when she awoke, her face fell. Nothing looked the same and the signs outside her window were in a language she didn't recognize. That same man who promised Preeda a job and earned her trust sold her to a brothel. She was forced to have sex with countless men, that night and for many nights to come. Not only was Preeda's body treated like a commodity, but the money she made all went to him.
Vanessa’s* straight, dark hair fell over her rich, brown skin as she told me she grew up in Texas. It was just her and her mom mostly; they didn't have much, but they had each other. She told me that as the “shy girl,” it was hard to make friends in high school. One day, the “cool girl” befriended her. Vanessa said that this girl was everything she wanted to be: popular and confident. I watched Vanessa adjust in her chair as she told me about what happened a few weeks later. Her new friend invited her to an out-of-town house party. People arrived by the dozens, all dressed in cocktail attire and driving expensive sports cars. This was the life Vanessa had dreamed about. After the party, Vanessa gathered her things to fly back home. As they headed to the airport, Vanessa's friend took a detour, pulling over in a parking lot. She told Vanessa that she owed her money for the trip; it was like her friend had suddenly flipped a switch and had become a totally different person. She gestured to the sign outside the window with neon letters that spelled the name of a strip club. She then forced Vanessa to go inside and dance, threatening her that if she didn’t, the men waiting for her would kill her mom.
I could see Vanessa's heart sink as she described dancing in the strip club that night, terrified and embarrassed that she'd trusted a friend who could do this to her. Later that night, the woman Vanessa once thought was her friend picked her up outside the club. Vanessa said she prayed this nightmare was over. Instead, Vanessa’s "friend" drove her back to the house where the previous night's party had been. Inside were two men from the strip club who were waiting for her. Vanessa described being force-fed hardcore drugs; she was almost haunted as she told me the blurry details of being raped by both men that night. That experience began a cycle of Vanessa being forced to dance at the club during the day and forced to have sex with men for money at night. That cycle continued for three years. The physical and sexual violence kept her afraid they'd hurt her mom if she tried to run.
Rukiya* (Ruw-KIY-Yaa) had to drop out of school when she was 14 to take care of her baby brother. As she sat across from me in a plastic chair holding an orange soda, she told me her story. Growing up in Kenya, she knew what it meant to go to bed hungry. One day, she and her friends were on social media when she saw an advertisement online for a nanny position in the Middle East. Her heart filled with hope for a better life. That hope fueled her as she answered the ad. Rukiya got an instant response; she was selected for the job!
She traveled for several days before she arrived at the edge of a gravel driveway where her new family waited. They had a mansion in a wealthy neighborhood and two elementary-aged children. Rukiya's lighthearted arrival quickly turned into a daily nightmare. She was forced to sleep in a closet in the basement, given very little food, expected to keep the house spotless, and required to prepare every meal. Every day the emotional and physical abuse from the family increased. They took her visa and threatened to hand her over to law enforcement if she tried to run. Rukiya said that she was never paid for her work and was told that one meal a day and the basement closet was her pay. Alone in a foreign country, Rukiya didn't know who to ask for assistance.
There are an estimated 24.9 million people are being trafficked today. Of these, 16 million (64%) were exploited for labor, 4.8 million (19%) were sexually exploited, and 4.1 million (17%) were exploited in state-imposed forced labor.
In the past seven years of my anti-trafficking allyship work, the many stories, including those of Preeda, Vanessa, and Rukiya’s have awakened me to see the pathway to making the changes we need in this world. They’ve been my teachers. It's no longer an issue far away from me because now I see her in an up-close and personal way each day. I see their stories.
The traffickers in these stories preyed on the vulnerability of not just the physical circumstances of these women, but also their hearts' good desire for something more. What if we could stop them? What if our collective actions helped as many trafficked people as possible? I believe that if we all began to see her, we could truly build a world where everyone is free. If we look closer and know what we’re looking for, we will see her more often than not -- in our neighborhoods, on the internet, in the places we least expect.
Will we choose to see Preeda’s story in the women in our neighborhood struggling to provide for their family?
Will we see Vanessa's story on our TikTok feeds spinning around stripper poles and wonder if... maybe it’s not all glamorous and sexy?
Will we see Rukiya’s story when job ads for nannies and babysitters come across our social media feeds? Will we see her? Will you see her? And, if you do what will you do?
Join me. Become a changemaker and help fight human trafficking in your community.
Special thanks to my editors Yoshika Green and Hannah Blair.
Photograph by: Dorothea Schulz.