For the past 12 years, Stephanie Davis has worked to stop human trafficking and, more urgently, child prostitution in Atlanta.
Through all those years and all the desperate stories, Davis said she has been undeterred. Why? The victims are generally poor, have been sexually abused and feel trapped and alone. And they have little recourse.
Some are smuggled from South America, Mexico or Bosnia and trafficked across state lines to work the streets of Atlanta. Others are from southeast Asia and work in the metro area’s massage parlors or strip clubs.
Regardless of their back stories, Davis said, “They are putting themselves in danger every single night.”
On average, 100 adolescent girls are sexually exploited for money in Georgia on a typical night, according to a report by the Schapiro Group, an Atlanta-based research, marketing and communications firm. The data reveal that 7,200 men pay for sex with adolescent females in Georgia each month and the largest concentration of men — 42 percent — seeking to pay for sex with adolescent females in Georgia is in the north metro area, outside the Perimeter. Twenty-six percent come from inside the Perimeter and 23 percent from the south metro area outside the Perimeter. Nine percent are from the immediate vicinity of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
So when more than 500 people from around the world gathered in Atlanta in September for the daylong Womenetics 2011 Global Women’s Initiative, Davis was there, along with activist Naomi Tutu and former U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, because human trafficking isn’t just a shameful blight on Atlanta; it’s one affecting the world.
“These issues require concerted solutions to help women become fully engaged in society and thus advance economically,” said Elisabeth Marchant, founder of Womenetics, a resource for female business professionals and the companies that employ them.
“At the 2011 Global Women’s Initiative, we learned that the U.S. spends more in a day combating drug trafficking than it spends on an entire year fighting human trafficking,” Marchant said. “If we can raise awareness of the harsh reality of this crime, together we can work to increase funding and public and private policies that will dramatically diminish human trafficking and exploitation.”
The numbers are stunning: Globally, more than 600,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, 80 percent of them women and girls. Up to 50 percent are minors. And in the U.S., an estimated 18,000 human beings are trafficked annually.
Tajuan McCarty, 40, was once among them. She was 12 years old when she ran away from home and straight into the arms of a pimp who promised to take care of her.
“You’re led to believe it’s the only way to survive and technically it is because you have no other skills,” McCarty said during a recent telephone interview.
Once her pimp introduced her to cocaine at age 15, she said that was it.
“It became a vicious cycle,” McCarty said. “At age 20, I stopped counting how many times I’d been raped. Technically, I should be dead. My throat was cut once by another girl and twice I had a gun pulled at my head but neither one of them fired. Life was crazy.”
When she finally broke away more than 10 years later in 1997, McCarty was arrested for stealing.
“It was then that I made the decision I wasn’t going back to the streets,” she said.
Instead of prison time, McCarty, by then a mother of two, was sentenced to a drug treatment facility. For the next 10 years, she appeared to have turned her life around. But in 2008, McCarty relapsed and was sent to prison for a year.
“The day I got out, I did drugs,” she said. “A few months later, I met a lady and was introduced to Jesus.”
That, McCarty said, has made the difference in her life. Today, she works with women 18 and older, who are still in the drug life but are trying to find their way out.
Not many do, said Davis, executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, a public policy nonprofit that works to advance progressive change for women and girls in the state.
“There are a small minority of women and girls who survive and thrive,” she said. “It’s important to tell stories of success but those stories are very rare.”
Davis is working with Covenant House in southwest Atlanta to open a drop-in center that will provide girls with a safe and viable alternative to street life and the pimps trying to lure them.
But in the meantime, she said more needs to be done to stem the demand for child and adult prostitution.
“That will mean moving the needle on a culture than tolerates men buying sex,” Davis said.
According to Allison Ashe, executive director of Covenant House, there are as many as 24 youth seeking refuge at the agency’s Crisis Center on Lakewood Avenue. A third of those, she said, are fleeing their pimps. The center, the only one of its kind in Georgia, operates 24 hours a day and is open to any kid seeking a place of refuge. (For help, call 404-589-0163 or 1-800-999-9999.)
Marchant said that it’s important for corporations and governments to acknowledge human trafficking and address the issue on a global scale.
“Trafficking and exploitation have real economic implications for companies and countries and it’s not just sexual exploitation,” Marchant said. “For every one person oppressed in sexual trafficking, nine people are exploited for labor purposes.”
Atlanta, she said, is at the epicenter for human trafficking in the country.
“It’s our hope that events such as the Womenetics Global Women’s Initiative will advance our community’s understanding of the magnitude of the problem and what we all can do to eradicate human trafficking and exploitation in Atlanta,” said Marchant.
“When we as a community begin to actively monitor and police the situation around us, victims of trafficking and exploitation are more likely to find justice and their abusers are more likely to be prosecuted.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.