Every day, in countries around the world, women and girls, desperate for economic opportunity, and seeking to follow their dreams of a better life, are lured from home by the promises of jobs and security. Sadly, though, they too often find themselves trapped in a nightmare, imprisoned by employers, mistreated, abused and often never seen nor heard from again.
Since the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, I have been working to raise awareness of the heinous practice of buying and selling women and children like commodities.
This week, representatives of over 100 countries, including the United States, are meeting in Vienna to continue negotiating a United Nations treaty that would protect these victims of trafficking and punish the perpetrators.
There are some who charge that international efforts to deal with trafficking will somehow undermine laws designed to eliminate prostitution. This is certainly not true. The U.S. government has made it absolutely clear that our country will continue to support and enforce its laws and policies aimed at ending prostitution in all its forms.
As the delegates debate the language of this vitally important treaty, it is critical that we keep our eye on the real issue -- trafficking. Every year, approximately 1 million women and girls are trafficked and sold into a modern form of slavery. The State Department believes that 50,000 of them, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia and Latin America, end up right here in our own country. Here are just a few examples of trafficking cases that have been prosecuted in American courts:
Teenage Mexican girls, promised jobs in restaurants, child care and landscaping, enslaved and forced into prostitution in Florida and the Carolinas; Thai women held captive and forced to work in sweatshops in California; and hearing-impaired men and women from Mexico -- enslaved, beaten and forced to peddle trinkets on the streets of New York and other cities.
No country is doing more than the United States to bring the worldwide trafficking of women and girls out of the shadows and into the glare of public attention.
In the summer of 1997, I met with women leaders from Eastern and Central Europe as well as victims' family members who, with tears in their eyes, pleaded with me for help in dealing with this growing problem. Later that year, in Lviv, Ukraine, I launched a new information campaign designed to warn young women about the dangers posed by traffickers.
In March of 1998, I joined the President, Secretary of State Albright, Attorney General Reno, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and a high-ranking member of the Thai government for a White House announcement of a presidential directive to prevent and deter trafficking and protect its victims.
Last Fall, in Istanbul, Turkey, at the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, I announced a $1 million U.S. commitment to combat trafficking, and called for greater economic opportunities to prevent young women from being driven into the hands of traffickers.
Our State Department is working in partnership with several foreign governments. The Attorney General and the Secretary of Labor have established a Worker Exploitation Task Force, which is actively investigating and prosecuting trafficking cases in the United States.
And the administration is working with Congress to craft bipartisan legislation to end trafficking by providing effective punishments for perpetrators and protections for victims. Passing this legislation is critical if we are to continue to make progress in fighting trafficking.
The draft U.N. treaty being debated in Vienna this week offers a unique opportunity to bring the power of international consensus, backed by punishment of the criminals and much-needed assistance for the victims, to the issue of trafficking.
In no way will it, as critics claim, weaken existing international law or the laws of any individual nation. In fact, it will punish those who profit from buying and selling human beings, and encourage countries to offer truly unprecedented protections to the victims -- including the possibility of lawful resident status, health care, shelter, restitution, and other tools to rebuild their lives.
Every day, more women and girls are being sold into the sex industry, domestic servitude, sweatshop labor, debt bondage and other forms of modern-day slavery. These crimes are violations of human dignity, and the United States will not rest until they are stopped.
We must not allow those who would distort the truth about this treaty derail the process. If they do, the only winners will be the international criminals who prey on desperate women and girls. The losers will be the victims of trafficking who, unless we take steps to protect them now, will continue to suffer unspeakable harm. They need our help. We must not let them down.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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