'Giving a voice to the voiceless'
Slavery is usually thought of as being a thing of the past, but it is still prevalent today — even in West Michigan. Throughout January, which is Human Trafficking Awareness month, some have dedicated their time to eliminate the issue.
The International Justice Mission Chapter at Grand Valley State University is a student organization committed to raising awareness about human trafficking. The group raises money to support the nationally-based human rights group of the same name.
“IJM is a faith-based organization, but we accept and welcome people of all faiths,” club president Melanie Govan said. “This is an issue that affects people of all faiths. We love to have everyone there.”
The group meets every Thursday night in the Kirkhof Center to discuss upcoming events and different ways to fundraise. Every month, it holds a prayer walk in the Grand Rapids area.
On Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Jan. 11, the students showed “The Whistleblower,” a movie in which an officer from the United Nations uncovers a sex trafficking ring. They also sold bracelets, and the funds of those sales went toward the larger IJM human rights group.
“My life goal, and the goal of IJM, is to give a voice to those who are voiceless,” Govan said.
Human trafficking includes sex trafficking, slave labor and any forced enslavement regardless of the season.
According to UNICEF, those who are forced into human trafficking average between 12-14 years of age. As Govan pointed out, that means that a lot of those trafficked are young children, though many are older than 14, as well. There is no concrete demographic that portrays those who are victims.
“People think of it as someone dragging you off into the street, but the reality is a lot of times perpetrators are people you know,” Govan said.
Tonisha Jones, assistant professor of criminal justice at GVSU, has focused some of her research on human right’s issues, especially human trafficking.
“Students can participate in anti-human trafficking efforts by educating themselves on the topic, knowing what to look for and knowing who to call if they perceive a situation as being indicative of human trafficking,” Jones said.
Govan agreed with Jones’ advice, adding that students can make a difference even when they are shopping.
“We buy products every day knowing where they come from. Research where you can get products not made with slave labor,” she said.
The Polaris Project, an organization that helps to push for stronger state and federal laws against human trafficking, has identified human trafficking victims in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The group provides the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline and works directly with victims. The hotline is 1-888-3737-888.
Groups nearby that support victims of human trafficking include the Manasseh Project, Women at Risk International, Better Way Imports, Michigan Abolitionist Project, Hope of the Voiceless, Hope Project and Eve’s Angels.