Season 1, Episode 2: Interviewing an Anti-Trafficking Advocate from China

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You’re listening to Episode 2 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel.
In this episode, we’ll learn more about sex trafficking in China, and will hear a Chinese student advocate’s perspective on what we can do to help.

In the last episode, I talked about how we often define human trafficking, but I didn’t talk about how we measure it. Every year since 2001, the US Department of State has released the Trafficking in Persons report. This report places every country into one of four categories, based on their effort to eliminate human trafficking. These categories are Tier 1, 2, 2 Watch List, and 3. Being in the first tier doesn’t mean that the country doesn’t have any human trafficking violations. It just means that that country is in full compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA, minimum standards, and is actively trying to eliminate human trafficking in their country. A country in the second tier has not met the minimum TVPA standards, but is making significant effort to do so. If a country is on the tier 2 watch list, it means they are trying to comply with the TVPA, but the number of victims in their country is too great, or they aren’t increasing efforts as much as they should be.

Then there’s the third tier, which is also the lowest rank. Countries in this tier have not met the minimum TVPA standards, and they’re not trying as hard as they could to meet them. If a country is placed in the third tier, they can be barred from receiving non-humanitarian aid from the US, so many countries try to avoid this rank.

However, this incentive doesn’t always work, which can be seen in the case of China. The BBC reports that China, which used to be on the Tier 2 Watch list, was recently demoted to Tier 3. Although China’s ranking is low, we shouldn’t let it overshadow the anti-trafficking work that is being done there.

That’s why we now turn to Emily Wang, a high school senior and anti-trafficking advocate from Beijing who attends boarding school in the US. During her summer break, Emily interned at an anti-trafficking social enterprise in China where she translated and worked alongside sex trafficking survivors. She learned a lot about the backgrounds and daily lives of the survivors and she also gained a better understanding of what we can do to help, which she is excited to share with the rest of us.

Victoria: Welcome to the podcast, Emily.

Emily: Thanks! Thank you for inviting me.

Victoria: I’m excited for you to join us! So, I’m just going to jump right in. During your internship, you were able to learn more about the past and present lives of the women you worked with. What were some of the things that the women faced, and were there any common elements in their stories?

Emily: Definitely. One huge thing is domestic violence since childhood... and poverty, and an incomplete education, which were affected by family environment and the fact that they were discriminated because they were girls and because they were poor. Nobody was there to encourage them to continue with their education when they faced those problems, so they tend to just give up. In fact, most of the girls quit school before the age of 16. Some even quit before 14. And, all of the childhood experiences -- the fact that the parents fought all the time, the dad was just strong and would lay hands on the mom and the girl, and they were discriminated against, maybe they didn’t have such a nice appearance, so they were called “ugly” -- all of those emotional reasons were just, really powerful in totally destructing their confidence. They didn’t grow up with a powerful, or likeable male figure, so that’s why they’re prone to believing and relying on the first male when they enter the society. And often times, that male was the person who tricked them into human trafficking.

Victoria: So it sounds like common factors for most of these women were poverty, gender discrimination, domestic violence, broken families, and emotional troubles? Is that right?

Emily: Yes. And...this is not, like, a general thing, but some girls were muslims, and their villages sort of distorted the teaching of muslims and they made it feel like that, women were inferior to men. Yeah so, again, tie back to gender discrimination.

Victoria: Okay...so while you got to learn about their pasts, you were obviously working with them in the present. What were they like? What was it like working with them?

Emily: Actually when I first was introduced to them, I wasn’t being welcomed. They were cold to me. When my manager first introduced me to them, some of them didn’t even stop from their work and make eye contact with me. It was hard for me to make eye contact with them because they tend to [shy] away from strangers’ eye contact, or they tend to walk with their heads facing the ground, or like they weren’t all that engaging. And...I felt like I was an outsider, and it was really hard for me to break into their shells, especially when they were a group of people and I was just one. But one time, at lunch, I came to their office room and I was like “Oh, if I get rejected, what will happen?” And I was like, “Hi, can I join you?” And then, when I said that thing, that moment, she changed completely. She was like, “Yes! Of course!” It was such a complete change from her previous coldness. But I could see a sincere happiness, and even like gratitude that I am opening myself for a friendship [with] her, and I’m trying to talk to her. The conversation really flowed well. We talked about, “Oh, what did you have for lunch?” It changed into, “So, what’s America like? What do they eat for food?” or, “Which celebrity do you like?” With every question I could see an increase in her excitement or curiosity. She became so engaged in it and I was grateful for that moment because it was such a sincere, pure connection that we were able to link, once I was like “I’m going to give it a try. I’m going to talk to them.”

Victoria: It sounds like because they come from a background where strangers or even their families don’t treat them well, they’re timid or even scared at first. But from what you’re saying, it sounds like if you’re willing to put in the effort, they might befriend you over time.

Emily: Yes. Before I talk to them or anything, my manager said that I shouldn’t talk to them about the really sensitive topics. You have to make them feel safe and respected. So, the best way is to start by some small talk. You have to show that you are talking to them like normal people, you’re accepting them, and you’re willing to share your ideas with them. I think that’s really important. It’s the respect, and to make them feel comfortable.

Victoria: Basically just humanizing them again, and not making them feel like an “other.”

Emily: Yes.

Victoria: Okay!

The next question is kind of broad, but I think it’s relevant for listeners of this podcast, since many of them are students or young adults in general. So how can students like ourselves play an active role in the anti-trafficking field when we’re so young?

Emily: I think what we tend to feel is that like, we’re so powerless because we’re not police or officials. But I think that there’s so many things that we can do, and in fact we can make powerful initiatives. Actually, I think the first step is to really raise awareness about this issue. Like, pay attention to what’s faced by those girls, and learn about their lives. And the second thing is that, if you can, try to participate in already established organizations. In fact, they’re really happy to take ambitious, kind young adults to help the girls. And once you’re able to have a connection with the girls, you should just talk to them. Share something about yourself, because anything you share will be empowering to them. Actually, I shared about some struggles that I have, which were like, little, small deal compared to theirs. But they were still really important, and I still had struggles. So I talked to them about how I was able -- what was my mindset. And they were like, “Oh! I’m really grateful for that, because before you shared with me, I thought I was the only teenager who suffered. And all the teenagers like you, live in a really happy family and have access to resources. But I didn’t know that you suffer from your own problems.” I think talking to the girls is really important. And also, support the NGOs that are out there already, whether it be buying their products. Because every contribution is really important to helping the girls. Or, like, helping the girls to have broadened experiences or friends.

Victoria: Let me see if I can summarize this: raise awareness, work with organizations that already exist and support them if they sell products, and if you do get the chance to work at one of these organizations and talk to the survivors, then don’t be afraid to reach out and build those relationships. So, you’re saying you can do all this even if you don’t have a social work background or experience working with people who have undergone significant trauma?

Emily: That was actually a really big concern that I faced before I entered into my volunteering. I never did any type of social work before this, but like, I was respectful, I was open-minded, I was non-judgemental. And I was -- just opened myself up for this work and for these victims. That’s what humanized them. I think that’s the key. Because, anything in this type of field -- helping a victim -- all the things are built upon emotional trust. And in order to build this emotional trust, you really need to be sincere, be non-judgemental, and be respectful, accepting the girls, humanizing the girls, and not taking them for [how] their pasts have defined them. Like, seeing them as all prostitutes. Taking each individual story off of them and just view them as a whole, that’s the last thing you want to do.

Victoria: Alright. So obviously, some parts of the anti-trafficking field will need to be handled by professionals, you know like, police officers, doctors, lawyers, counselors... But it seems like for some things, if you’re willing to learn more about the stories of each survivor, and humanize and respect them, then you can get involved in some capacity regardless of your age.

Emily: Yes. And actually, I think the fact that young adults that have ages similar to the victims actually are really powerful for them because if we are all really open-minded and kind toward them, then the society to them will not feel that cold anymore and exclusive. They can’t take a step out of their shelter because they were so stigmatized by the rest of the society. But if we show our open mindedness and support for them, that’s really powerful for the girls.

Victoria: Great! That’s awesome to hear. I have another broad question for you: what’s something you wish more people understood about sex trafficking, or just human trafficking in general?

Emily: I think the first thing is, not everybody [was] in sex trafficking for the same reason. People might think the prostitutes there are really filthy, they’re lazy people...but actually they suffer from so many other reasons, like their family, and poverty. And also I think it’s really important to know that, maybe not so much in China, but in America or in other parts of the world, social media is such a huge platform for sex trafficking. And I just want us teenagers to know, especially on Instagram, some pimps first comment on the pictures of the girls and then they flirt with them and they make the girls feel like the pimps are their boyfriends. But they immediately brought them to prostitution, to the brothels. Be aware of the comments that you’re receiving, and be aware of how much you’re exposing of yourself, and be alarmed while you enjoy the openness of social media. Also, human trafficking is happening just next to us. They labor shop where they sell and exchange human labors actually is just near China’s train station. So, when I think about it, since like 6 years old, I’ve been to the train station for like a lot of times. That means that I’ve just walked past where human trafficking is taking place, and I wasn’t aware of it! And I thought to myself, “that’s so scary.” I’ve walked maybe a hundred meters away from it, and I didn’t know it. So I just want people to realize that human trafficking is something that deserves our attention and discussion.

Victoria: So it sounds like what you’re saying is, one, it’s around us and it’s more prevalent than we think. Two, social media can play a role, and three, it’s not always about poverty. Sometimes it’s about that emotional bond that a victim thinks they’ve formed with their trafficker, and it’s for emotional reasons that they’ll stay.

So...that was my last official question. Now I’m just going to open it up to you. Do you have any last thoughts or things you want to say?

Emily: I think...human trafficking, it has so many other factors. That means that there are many things that we can do. So if we increase, say for example like, making the girls more emotionally stable, and emotionally encouraged and supported, then maybe we can take out the girls who were tricked into human trafficking for emotional reasons. And if we strengthen education, then we can change the girls who were tricked into human trafficking because they dropped out of school. So there are so many ways we can change, and even small things can make a really big difference.

Victoria: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and for joining our team! For those of you who don’t know, Emily just joined our team and will be a podcaster and blogger for future episodes.

Emily: Yeah, my pleasure. I am really grateful for this opportunity and thank you so much for having me. I can’t wait for more episodes to come.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel and Emily Wang. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on September 17, 2017 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at thetraffickingdispatch@gmail.com. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

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