WASHINGTON:February 26.AFP. It is hard to imagine the woman in a sober blue suit and pearl necklace was a prostitute at age seven, or that she found the courage to tell her story at a world conference on human trafficking ending on Wednesday.
"I want to put a human face on the problem," Rani Hong said in a low, even voice. She is now a wife and the mother of four.
Hong is one of as many as four million women and children who are sold, kidnapped or coerced into a life of sexual servitude annually, according to theorganizers of the "Path breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking."
The fast-growing trade is a seven-billion-dollar business, according to State Department Deputy
Secretary Richard Armitage who addressed the four-day conference.
"It is so lucrative that our intelligence community estimates it will outstrip the illicit trade in guns and narcotics in this decade," he said. Women and girls are spirited into countries whose language they do not speak, increasing their vulnerability and isolation as they are repeatedly raped, beaten and drugged while clients are forced upon them as frequently as every thirty minutes.
Victims like Hong attended the State Department-sponsored conference alongside attorneys, law enforcement officials and even border guards from 120 countries enlisted by the War Against Trafficking Alliance of non-governmental organizations.
Hong was born in southern India to a mother who could not care for her and left her in the home of a trusted friend. "I do not have memory of what happened, but there was enough abuse that I appeared mentally and physically ill," she told the conference. "Because I got such a bad shape I was not a person of value."
That may have saved her. She was sold to another ring, which was broken, and she wound up in an orphanage, and was eventually adopted by a family from the western US state of Washington.
Traffickers often require a victim to "work off" the cost of her transportation, or even her own purchase price. Girls are bought and sold by traffickers in an industry akin to the 18th Century slave trade. The US State Department backed the conference with two million dollars. President George Bush ordered the departments of state, labor, justice and health and human services to join the fight against human trafficking.
Attorney General John Ashcroft told the activists the Justice Department, which he heads, had issued special visas to victims while their cases are pending, as well as benefits granted other refugees.
Many countries simply deport victims, making their lives difficult and law enforcement nearly
impossible."It is those who enslave that must pay the price, not the victims," Ashcroft said. The shared experiences of the participants will yield a "tool kit" of best practices, said Jennifer Goodson of the Protection Project at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies."We didn't invite the talkers," she said. "We invited the doers." In West Africa, cross-border traffickers enslave over 200,000 children and 20,000 children are engaged in prostitution in Pakistan, according to the Project.