Former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith heard from a missionary about children being locked up in cages in a far away place.
To see for herself, Smith traveled in 1998 to the front lines of India’s commercial sex industry on Falkland Road in Mumbai, home to one of the worst brothel districts in the world.
There, she met a young girl who was about the same age as her granddaughter. It was a life-altering night for Smith, who represented the 3rd Congressional District.
Five years later, after leaving politics and launching a nonprofit organization aimed at helping the victims of sex trafficking around the world, Smith came to another realization: The sex trade industry was thriving in the United States too.
On Monday morning at a gathering inside the Capitol, Smith, along with other human trafficking experts, state officials and those concerned with the issue, reflected on the magnitude of the problem and on strategies for reaching lawmakers.
“It’s real. It’s big. We need to do something,” said Smith, the founder of Shared Hope International.
Human trafficking is believed to be the fastest-growing crime in the world, according to Seattle Against Slavery, the organization that sponsored Monday’s event. Smith said at least 100,000 domestic minors, or children born in the U.S., are among those coerced into the sex industry, which includes prostitution, stripping, exotic dancing and pornography. Pre-teen and adolescent girls are the most susceptible.
“The numbers in our country are staggering,” Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, told the crowd. “They are being kept there by beating, assaults, isolation, terror.”
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who was also on hand Monday, is expected to introduce legislation this week that would allow volunteers to post signs inside rest area bathrooms along Interstate 5, a prominent trafficking route, urging those who need help or those who see a possible victim to call the authorities.
The fear is that hundreds of victims could be transported through Washington state on their way to brothels in Vancouver, B.C., for next month’s Winter Olympics.
“When I drive up I-5, what is it I’m not seeing?” Kohl-Welles said.
Organizers hope that the owners of convenience stores, gas stations, casinos and truck stops will also allow volunteers to post the signs in their restrooms so that victims from “Vancouver to Vancouver” can get help, Smith said. The sign reads: “Need Help?” in seven languages, and contains the image of two hands chained together and the number to an anti-trafficking hot line.
“My girls have been sold at rest stops and truck stops; practically every one that I’ve been involved with in the United States,” Smith said.
Another bill expected to be filed later this week would increase the penalties for those found guilty of promoting the commercial sexual abuse of a minor, protect rather than punish those being charged with their first offense for prostitution, provide more help for victims, and change the language of “minor engaged in prostitution” to “sexually exploited child.”
“We’re going to fight hard to bring about the justice of the women and justice to the men who use their bodies by the hour,” Smith said.