The New Middle Passage

Think Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves back in 1863? Think again. And then get angry. Very, very angry.

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On this Juneteenth, I am thinking of those who are not yet free. Most of them are girls. Born in America.

Every year in this country, between 100,000 and 300,000 children--most of whom are astonishingly between the ages of 11 to 14 years old-- are sold for sex by pimp-captors, according to government statistics. Suspend disbelief for just a moment while you imagine your fifth-grade child, niece or sister being sold for sex. If you live in a city, imagine that happening within one square mile of where you are right now.

And if you want to know the greatest connector of those children to, by some estimates, millions of Americans ready to purchase a girl for sex, look no further than the best-known online trading post: Craigslist. While most people use the site to buy and sell stuff--cars, clothes and musical instruments--the most active areas of the site are used to buy sex, often with little girls.

Law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking organizations have repeatedly asked Craigslist to rein in its sex ads in an effort to stop the selling of children. Unfortunately, Craigslist's founder Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster have ignored such pleas--in part because they just made an estimated $36 million in profits from these sex ads in the last year alone. While Craigslist has made selling children a virtual stop-and-shop for predators, it alone doesn't by any means account for the explosion of child trafficking.

Young girls are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are peddling. They have been allowed to operate in a culture void of crime and punishment for selling girls, largely because the U.S. government annually spends 300 times more money to fight drug trafficking than it does to fight human trafficking. And because the criminal penalties for trafficking cocaine, for example, are 20 times greater than the criminal penalties levied against those who buy and sell girls. As incomprehensible as it seems, today trafficking in girls brings in more profits and spells less prison time than dealing crack.

But the biggest reason the trafficking of young girls has become so pervasive: Demand. Legally, men who purchase girls for sex are no different than men who snatch children off the street to violate them. Both are rapists. Period. Whatever the circumstances, no child wants to sell her body to a stranger. In fact, no child is permitted to sell her body; the law says they can't consent. Yet arresting these perpetrators of child rape is rare--and prosecution is even rarer. In most cases, these men go free. According to the international anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope, very few buyers of prostituted children are arrested or prosecuted in the United States. Legal and systemic challenges undermine the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate, arrest and prosecute buyers.

In fact, when an arrest is made--it is often the MINOR CHILD who ends up behind bars. Most girls in detention are there for reasons related to trafficking and sexual victimization. A judge, in most cases, must decide between sending a girl back to what is often an abusive home environment or sending her to jail. By most estimates, there are 50-70 beds available for inpatient therapeutic services for girls who have been sexually trafficked. That is, 50-70 beds, for between 100,000 and 300,000 girls.

Shocking. But, as Demi Moore calls it, America's ''dirty little secret'' is that we have the very same child sex slave markets that Nick Kristoff has deftly reported on in Cambodia, the Philippines and India. For those girls, who are sold for the very same reasons to the very same types of men and tortured in almost identical manner if they attempt to leave, we have unending empathy. However, for poor girls of color in America--often sold by men coming from the same circumstances--we dismiss them as ''hos.'' Even worse, most people don't think about them at all. These children are considered one of a multitude of problems stemming from impoverished communities, unstable family situations and abuse.

Ending this kind of girl slavery in America is the next abolitionist movement. We owe it to these girls to give them freedom, refuge and safety--and harsh penalties for every entity involved in their trafficking--pimps, victimizers and enterprises that profit from these sales. No girl in America should be for sale.

Malika Saada Saar, M.Ed, J.D. is the founder and executive director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity and reform for vulnerable families.

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