Engaged Activism: Two Women Challenge Global Sex Trafficking

Engaged Activism: Two Women Challenge Global Sex Trafficking

By Gabrielle Korn

October 28, 2011

Uncovering the roots of global sex trafficking and protecting its victims are driving forces for Mexican journalist and activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro. In addition to writing about the topic, Cacho founded and is director of Mexico’s only high-security shelter, the Women’s Assistance Center in Cancun, which provides victims of sex trafficking with a safe place to stay, medical and psychological services, and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

Cacho and Triveni Acharya, who does similar work in Mumbai, India, as president of the Rescue Foundation, were recently awarded the Civil Courage Prize in New York by The Train Foundation. On October 18, the evening prior to the awards ceremony, both appeared on a panel, Engaged Activism: A Conversation on Global Sex Trafficking presented by Socials for Change and On The Issues Magazine. Joining them were moderator Crystal DeBoise, co-director of the Sex Workers Project in New York City, and Merle Hoffman, publisher and editor-in-chief of On The Issues Magazine.

Cacho described her work investigating the complex power structure behind global sex trafficking, explaining that she spent five years creating a map of the major sex trafficking markets around the world, starting with Mexico and the surrounding countries in Latin America. “In order to figure out how it is possible,” Cacho said, “I had to talk to the clients.” The industry generates $38 billion each year, she said, and is protected by a large network of police and government officials with the power to turn the illegal into the legal.

Going undercover to meet clients, she also began to reflect on how masculinity is defined and interpreted. Many clients, she said, had a common assumption that men cannot curb their sexual appetites and that prostitution is the necessary solution to meet this need. Male clients blamed the feminist movement for the increase in sex trafficking, indicating that they did not want to be forced to respect the wishes of women sex partners, as they felt feminists demanded.

Although Cacho and Acharya work from different social and cultural contexts, there are many points of unity within the work. Both women have learned that the solution is not always getting help from the police since in many instances, they are already in the pocket of the traffickers. Victims often refuse help if the police are involved because they have lost their faith in people who wear uniforms, the women said. Both have also discovered that the sex market demands younger and younger women, which Cacho says is related to the clients need to assert their power.

In fact, the young age of victims is what first led Triveni Acharya to become an activist in India. In 1993, while she was working as a journalist doing an investigation into sex trafficking, she asked a child if her mother was a sex worker. The child responded, No; I am a sex worker. It was a pivotal moment for Acharya. She became more deeply involved after her husband, the founder and president of the Rescue Foundation died in an accident in 2005 — Acharya suspects that he was murdered by sex traffickers who were angry at his exposes of their trade. Rather than step back, Acharya took over as president of the Rescue Foundation, rescuing 300 to 400 child victims of sex trafficking each year. Although threats are common, she carries on with no fear of death, she said.

The type of courage that both women display in their work — a steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk — is the greatest of human virtues, said Merle Hoffman in her comments. Author of the upcoming book Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom, Hoffman noted that Cacho and Acharya are heroes of intimate wars that are fought on the battlefields of womens bodies and souls, intergenerationally, internationally, forever.

See our video interview of Lydia Cacho Riberio