WASHINGTON–Calling human trafficking a “vile and violent issue,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski joined her female colleagues before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday to call for more aid for victims and a crackdown on traffickers.
Mikulski, along with the 19 other women serving in the Senate, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee in early February calling for a hearing on sex trafficking. The result was a two-panel hearing – one included several of the senators who signed the letter, the other included experts and advocates.
Several senators who spoke at the hearing promised to introduce safe harbor bills, which would prevent the arrest of children forced into prostitution. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., used the time to discuss her bill, the Combat Human Trafficking Act of 2015, a safe harbor bill that also would impose stronger punishments for traffickers.
The hearing not only allowed senators to voice their concerns on the sale of sex with minors, but it also united women across party lines.
“Women of the Senate do not have a caucus,” Mikulski said. “We have different opinions. We do try to find common ground where we can come together not as a caucus but as a force.”
Mikulski added that this year, the women of the Senate chose to focus on human trafficking.
“All women in the Senate share a common concern about human trafficking,” Senator Susan Collins, D-Maine, said. “No state is immune to the evils of sex trafficking. Stories we hear from individuals are horrific.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of the Judiciary Committee put the problem into numbers when he spoke.
“Experts tell us that many of the U.S. citizen victims of sex trafficking are teenagers,” Grassley said. “Up to 100,000 minors are being sexually trafficked in the United States each year, according to the Polaris Project.”
The Polaris Project is an advocacy group for victims of slavery and sex trafficking.
Mikulski said Maryland is not immune to forced prostitution.
“People say Baltimore is a sports town, but police officers are on high alert during big games for sex trafficking,” Mikulski said. “Children and women are trafficked up and down I-95. That road should be a corridor of business and commerce but awful, despicable things are happening.”
Those on both panels discussed the need for a two-pronged approach to eliminate sex trafficking – pimps and johns need to face harsher punishments for selling and buying minors, while children who have been trafficked need to be treated as victims of a crime rather than criminals.
“We must dispel the myth of choice and see the victims as they are,” Michael Ferjak, criminal investigator and the director of the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative in Des Moines, Iowa.
Ferjak added that 75 percent of law enforcement officials don’t believe forced prostitution is a problem in their jurisdiction.
Despite this belief, more than 1,000 children in the United States are arrested for prostitution each year, even though they are not at the legal age of consent, Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, said.
“They are not child prostitutes, there is no such thing as a child prostitute,” Saar said. “There is child rape. There ought to be no difference between raping a child and paying to rape a child.”
“Any man that purchases a 12-year-old girl should go to jail,” she said. “They’ve ruined a girl’s life.”
Mikulski added that calls to the national human trafficking hotline have exploded this year. She said nonprofits and churches are standing up against forced prostitution and that the government needs to as well.
“When you treat women and children and boys as a commodity, there is nothing worse than that,” Mikulski said. “This is a serious crime, because if you sell women and children, you would sell anything to anyone.”
She ended her address to the committee by reminding them that even though women called for the hearing, all senators need to call for change.
“This is not only a women’s issue,” Mikulski said. “It’s a human rights issue.”