FIU4Freedom panel raises awareness about sex trafficking

Photo courtesy of Sara Bedoya

Patricia Katri/ Staff Writer

At 16, Melissa Schwartz, was abducted in her home state of Wisconsin and taken to Florida to be sold and prostituted on streets throughout the United States.

On Jan. 26, Schwartz, now a survivor-leader, was a keynote speaker at the FIU4Freedom Panel, as part of a week-long initiative by the organization to raise awareness on human trafficking. FIU4Freedom was founded by Regan Kramer, a former staff member at the University with the Wesley Foundation, a faith-based organization actively involved with the initiative.

At 26, after being put in jail on prostitution charges, Schwartz was rescued and began the long process of rehabilitation. Schwartz lost 10 years of her life, she says, and rebuilding it has been a tough process, having to re-learn how to make friends, pay bills and manage money.

“If you’re lucky enough to escape, you don’t want to talk about it,” Schwartz said. “You feel dirty, as if it is your fault.”

Traffickers use this guilt as an advantage to exact psychological coercion.

“When I was being trafficked, I was told that society would never accept me, that no one would ever like me,” Schwartz said.

Adjunct professor and anti-trafficking leader, Sondra Skelaney, was also part of the panel. She created “Project Gold in Kristi House” in 2007, a private, non-profit organization in Miami helping minors who have been trafficked and teaches a course at the University on  trafficking.

“Book knowledge is very different from the knowledge you get when you’re working on the ground,” she said.

Skelaney also noted that policy leaders and those who are in a position of power in government would also do well to apply this distinction.

Betty Lara, the third panel speaker, is the executive director of “Glory House,” a Christian non-profit organization focusing on rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking.  

“Some of these ladies are afraid to change, and this can be normal,” Lara said.  “They need psychological help [and] spiritual help.”

The panelists described trafficking as an international and complex phenomenon.

According to the panelists, there are several avenues for sex trafficking: social media; blind dating with individuals who use drugs to abduct victims; falling victim to predators who frequent malls, looking for vulnerable teenagers who may be skipping school; and seemingly glamorous but bogus jobs in modeling or waitressing.

“Victims often come from [difficult circumstances] and are given a promise of a new life,” Skelaney said. “Sometimes, [potential victims] think that prostitution might be a quick solution to [money problems], such as getting through college and paying bills, but they find that the reality is quite different.”

Skelaney adds victims are often coerced into violent situations, often accompanied by forced drug use and from which there might be no escape, except death.

“The line between prostitution and trafficking can be thin,” she said.

Demand for the services traffickers provide and enable comes from individuals, usually male, who otherwise lead normal lives.  

Panelists observed that married men may take trips abroad, solicit services —involving risky, sexual behavior— from victims forced into prostitution, then come home and expose their families to these risks.

The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A session and one attendee asked how to address women who participate in activities like stripping or prostitution because they find them empowering.

The panelists responded that such empowerment often came from male objectification, which ultimately they do not control and lies at the source of the illicit demand posed by sex trafficking.

Despite her past ordeal, Schwartz has turned to rehabilitation and religion as sources of optimism and aids in gaining back control of her life.

“Schwartz is an amazing testimony of hope, ” Lara said.


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