The Price of a Child

Kenyan Village when raining.

I stood on the rubble in Nairobi, Kenya trying to take it all in. Just a few months earlier a

two-story school had been standing in this exact spot. Now there was nothing left but rocks and

piles of debris. Eight children had lost their lives and many more were injured.

Like many African villages, the roads are made of dirt and on rainy days mud flows thick through

the streets washing trash and human waste with it. It had been especially rainy and early one morning the school collapsed. The schools in these villages, or “slums,” are not government supported schools, rather, they are run by the local village and even with nominal school fees many families cannot afford it. The children who had attended this school were actually achieving quite well. They were scoring equally or better in testing than children in the government schools. But being a school in a slum, it was not built to hold up against the elements…and it collapsed.

Rubble where school had been standing.

I had never seen this kind of poverty in the U.S. Yes, poverty exists all over the world, but abject poverty to the degree that exists in some countries is unfathomable to people who live in the developed world. In villages like this one, families struggle to meet basic needs and children are left to have sex in order to obtain money for necessities like food and feminine supplies. A child compelled to exchange sexual activity to meet basic needs is a form of sex trafficking.

Many people still envision kidnapping when they think of sex trafficking. However, the truth is that kidnapping is quite uncommon. Cultural, economic, and other factors play a role in shaping the manifestation of human trafficking causing the sex trafficking of children to look different depending on geographic areas. Young people in developing countries are forced to exchange sex to meet basic needs, Thai families sell their daughters to traffickers in order to support the rest of the family, and in Nepal and India, young people desperate for employment are trafficked when they leave home for what they believe to be a legitimate job offer.

It might seem surprising, but in the U.S. many juvenile victims of sex trafficking repeatedly run away from home or other living arrangements and return the life of exploitation. Traffickers use social media to offer young people “love,” affection, a sense of belonging, drugs, etc. There is no need to kidnap a child or teen when it is much easier to manipulate them into willingly leaving home to be with you and to a 14-year-old child, the trafficker’s offer is tempting. In 2018 data from Charlotte, NC, 75% of victims of human trafficking under the age of eighteen had a history of running away. Even after being found and returned home, these youth frequently return to their trafficker because the manipulation by the trafficker is so powerful it results in what is called a trauma bond. Some children run away escaping abuse or as a response to previous trauma. Child sexual abuse has been shown to be the strongest predictor of future sexual exploitation (Bagley & Young,1987; Basson et al., 2012; Landers et al., 2017; Reid et al., 2017).

The U.S. passed Federal legislation defining and prohibiting human trafficking twenty-two years ago and much had changed since then. But two things remain constant: 1) The stereotype persists that child are kidnapped for sex trafficking and 2) sex traffickers and sex buyers don’t have to kidnap children when they are skilled in exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Let’s take some time to educate ourselves about what human trafficking really is and how we all have a part to play in combatting it. You can host a training for a local group, volunteer with an anti-trafficking nonprofit, send feminine supplies to organizations working in developing countries, etc. The list is long and children and youth around the world need our support.

Shawna Pagano, MSW

Director of Education and Community Engagement

Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center

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