"We've got to rise up, open our eyes up. Be her voice, be her freedom, come on stand up." The words to "Twenty Seven Million" by Matt Redman echoed through the activities center at Roswell Area Park where several hundred Roswell Rotary members gathered Thursday to kick off a beta program which will attempt to put an end to human trafficking in Georgia - and then hopefully the world.
"This could be our next Polio vaccine," said President Dave McCleary, referring to the famed successful efforts of Rotary International to end Polio years ago.
Speakers from throughout the metro area spoke to the issue of human trafficking, which has become so prevalent approximately 27 million people are enslaved around the world. Human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest international criminal industry in the world and it is the fastest growing, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Because human trafficking is often thought of a foreign problem, one that might affect a third-world country, speakers brought the reality home for their audience by telling them many of the commodities Americans buy are produced through forced labor. But even closer to home, is the serious issue Atlanta has as a hotbed for human trafficking via the sex trade industry..
Guest speaker Melissa Stanfield, a Roswell resident, shared her own story of falling into the industry after she ran away from home at 17. She was eventually rescued from a forced life as a prostitute in Atlanta and got back on her feet with the help of Wellspring Living, a non-profit that rescues and helps restore victims of the industry.
In the "Demand Study" by The Shapiro Group researchers surveyed 218
men over a two month period in fall 2009. The findings showed that 42 percent of respondents lived north of the perimeter, debunking the myth that commercial sexual exploitation is a problem that exists only in the urban core of the city. In other findings, the study also showed that 12,400 men in Georgia pay for pay for sex with a young female each month and 7,200 of them end up exploiting an adolescent female.
Amy Walters, the Director of Programs at Street GRACE, a non-profit that works to organize resources to fight child exploitation, told the audience that the sex trade is mainly driven by men, who are "buying a product."
"But, men, you can also be the ones to help solve this problem," she said.
A new partnership between several non-profits and the Georgia Department of Education will train Rotary members as anti-trafficking experts. They will then be given assignments to speak and educate PTAs at the more than 2,000 public schools in the state. Roswell Rotary would be the test pilot for this new program. If successful, the program could be replicated within other Rotary clubs throughout the world.
Stanfield's story isn't as uncommon as you think; and it doesn't always look the way you might predict. Human trafficking, and particularly the sex trade industry, can begin harmlessly enough. It can begin with a compliment; a conversation; a long-sought companion.
"Technically, any child is at-risk," said Walters. "The best thing you can do to protect your child is to be involved in their life."