For most people, study abroad is a time to travel, have fun, and learn a lot about yourself. However, it’s also a time of growth and learning about what’s happening around you. I had a ton of fun during my time in Madrid, but problems I’d heard and talked about became real to me while I was there. You see, I’m a part of the International Justice Mission (IJM) student group here at the U, and so I’d learned a lot about human trafficking. I can rattle off the stats, talk about what makes someone vulnerable, tell you the signs that show that someone might be trafficked. But had I ever really seen this problem for myself? Minneapolis is ranked 13th for sex trafficking in the U.S., so the problem is real, and it’s local. Despite that, it had never really hit me. It was an abstract problem to be talked about and combatted from afar. It wasn’t something I could take action on personally.
Until I went to Madrid. I started attending a church near my apartment in the center of the city, and each Wednesday a group of women would go out into the city and talk to women who were victims of the sex trade. Most of them were from different countries (a lot from Bulgaria for some reason), spoke more languages than I ever will, and were educated. They had been tricked into coming to Spain for a promising job offer, only to be enslaved and held hostage. Pimps take their documents, causing them to be stranded and dependent on them. Some pimps get girls addicted to drugs, making this dependency even stronger and more dangerous. These girls stand out on the streets, in the middle of the city, amidst the tourists and storefronts, pacing, waiting for customers.
The first time I went out with the women, it was February and decently cold out. We met by the Apple store, in the literal center of the city. We were briefed on what would happen. That week we had chocolate bars and packs of tissues with notes of encouragement for the women. We were told that the women on the next street over may not be able to speak to us; the pimps watch them. If we saw a pimp, we were to signal to each other and make our way out of there. At that point my heart started racing. What was I getting myself into? After we crossed Gran Via, one of the main streets, kind of like the Broadway of Madrid, the women had more freedom. They would be able to speak more freely with us and we could invite them to the church that Saturday to make jewelry, bags, and journals to be sold. We would pay them cash for their time.
So we were off. As we turned the corner into the busy street filled with everyday people going shopping, there they were. Lining the street, every 10 feet or so, on both sides of the road. Girls in short shorts, tights, skimpy tops. Some leaning against a wall in between storefronts, some pacing between the trees in the sidewalk. All expressionless.
“Tengo un regalo para ti.”
Then we’d move on. Our group was divided in two, one for each side of the street, and we were always to stay in groups of two or three. As we crossed Gran Via, the women recognized some of the women in our group, addressing them by name, giving hugs, talking about their lives. One woman told of family that had been hit by a hurricane the week before. Another talked about a daughter coming to visit her. Yet another had a friend who had just had a baby. The relationships these women had with the women from church amazed me. They were friends. I hadn’t expected this at all. That first time, I handed out the “gifts”, introduced myself, exchanged kisses on the cheek, but let those who had been before do the talking.
Most of those women were aware of the bi-weekly Saturday workshops, and they asked about them every week, just in case there was a chance they would be held two Saturdays in a row. Some of the women brought their children; all were welcome. The workshops were held in a small upstairs room in the church. Necklace chains, scrapbook paper, blank journals, beads, scissors, glue, and everything in between were displayed on these tables, ready for the women. The purpose of this time was not only to give the women a chance to earn some extra money, but to see that they had value, that their skills and talents could be used. This is the space where women would open up to each other and to us.
The experience I had opened my eyes to how real this issue is, and gave me an opportunity to interact with it in a meaningful way. I may not have been able to free any slaves, but being a small part of a solution to a much larger problem was sufficient for me. But now what? I’m back in the U.S. I don’t go out to the streets of Minneapolis and look for potentially trafficked women now. How can I continue to affect change on this issue? How can you get involved?
The first thing to do is educate yourself. I’ve learned so much from the IJM student group on campus. They bring in speakers: victims of trafficking, those who work with the trafficked, professionals who work to change laws. I’ve been to events talking about how those going into the medical field can spot signs of a potentially trafficked girl. (I am in no way going into that field, but any information is useful.)
Secondly, educate those around you. So many people are unaware of this issue. Awareness is the first step to making change. If nobody knows there is a problem, who will ever work to find a solution? I have done this through the “Dressember” campaign. For every day in December, I wear a dress to raise awareness for the millions of women who are sexually exploited daily. I post on Facebook and Instagram, including facts about modern day slavery. Not only does this raise awareness, but those interested can donate to the foundation. The money supports International Justice Mission, the international organization that goes into places where trafficking runs rampant and brings freedom and justice to those enslaved.
Especially in Minneapolis, there are non-profit organizations that work with victims of sex trafficking. If you are interested in taking action in this way, check out Breaking Free.
The excuses of limited time and lack of opportunity to make “real” change keep many from taking action regarding this issue. Don’t let these excuses stop you. If this topic is something you are passionate about, go for it! If there’s another issue that you’ve been thinking about but don’t know where to start, follow the same steps I outlined above: educate yourself, educate others, and look for organizations that already work with the issue. While I do not plan on making this my professional career, I am committed to raising awareness for this issue. Every December, I will be wearing dresses. I will continue to bring it up in conversations. Small actions by many can make great change. “I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” – Hellen Keller