‘More people are talking about it now’: The fight to eliminate human trafficking

Community organizations provide legal, therapy and advocacy services for victims of sexual exploitation

Think human trafficking is an invisible issue?

Take another look, says Beth Jacobs.

“Many years ago I was brought to a truck stop to be raped, beaten and thrown into the life of prostitution. I didn’t want, volunteer, or dream of being sexually exploited,” says Jacobs, a survivor who now fights human trafficking full time.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the United States. It’s a sobering reminder that this is a national issue—with organizations like Duluth-based Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) waging a daily battle against sexual exploitation, sexual violence against women and youth, and human trafficking.

Founded in 1975, PAVSA is the only agency providing free and unlimited legal and therapy services in St. Louis County—and the first in the state to engage with medical professionals.

And with a growing network of support, PAVSA is no longer fighting the battle on its own.

PAVSA staff are active in community education, training more members of society—landlords, teachers, hotel clerks—to spot the signs of human trafficking.

The organization also provides training for nurses responding to sexual assaults, and works with local law enforcement, prosecutors, churches, schools, colleges and organizations like the Duluth Seaway Port Authority—ultimately, making a greater impact on human trafficking prevention.

Commercial sexual exploitation “has a huge impact on our community, and I think people don’t always have a clear idea of how to talk about human trafficking or how to spot the signs,” says PAVSA executive director Sara Niemi.

“More people are talking about it now. We’re seeing requests from hotels, from private businesses. We’re getting into medical facilities,” she adds. “We focus much of our effort on training various agencies to help coordinate efforts, and we back it up with community education and outreach.”

Dedicated to the elimination of sexual violence, PAVSA’s services include:

  • Hospital advocacy, through its Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program;
  • Counseling and support groups;
  • A 24-hour crisis line; and
  • Legal services through the Zenith Law Center.

Enbridge is committed to improving the quality of life in the communities near our operations and projects. We’ve developed a human trafficking prevention plan as part of our Line 3 Replacement Project through northern Minnesota. We’ve partnered with Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) to hold educational events in the state.

Our recent $5,000 grant to PAVSA will be used for general operations and victim support services, and we also give to organizations fighting human trafficking elsewhere—including a recent $9,500 grant to Rahab’s Daughters, based in Barrington, Illinois.

“Knowledge is power, and we believe that today we don’t have enough of an understanding of what human trafficking looks like. We need to change this,” says Sharmila Wijeyakumar, chief operating officer of Rahab’s Daughters. “We have two safe houses in the area, and new funding will help us create programs teaching women how to be situationally aware.”

It’s hearing the real stories, says Wijeyakumar, that makes all the difference.

“The general public doesn’t always see this as a problem affecting North America,” she says. “They don’t realize that 83 per cent of human trafficking victims in the United States are born-and-raised American citizens.”