September 16, 2018



You’re listening to Episode 23 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 child soldiering from a scholar who argues that they exist in the US too.


In our last episode, we learned about child soldiers, a form of human trafficking that, while it had its moment in 2012, largely fell from public attention. In that episode, I mentioned that the seven countries with the most child soldiers are: Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But I also mentioned how in countries like the US, there are some people who enlist in the military at 17, when they’re still legal minors. I said that those kinds of child soldiers would not be the focus of the last episode, and they’re not going to be the focus of this episode either. But in this episode, we will be learning about another kind of child soldier in the US.


Last year, I attended the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo. I only got to attend one day of the conference, but during the lunch break on the second day, I had the chance to talk to other conference attendees. One of them told me about a session that she had gone to the previous day. She told me the presentation was by Dr. Jesse Bach, a scholar, activist, and founder of the Imagine Foundation, who researches child soldiering in the US. When I heard about him, I knew I had to have him on the podcast at some point. Thankfully, he agreed to do an interview with us, so let’s turn to him now to learn more about his work and his argument for the existence of child soldiers in America.


Victoria: So to start off with, Dr. Bach, I read on the Imagine Foundation website that you founded the organization after volunteering at an orphan's home in Nepal. But I’m curious, what brought you to Nepal in the first place and just the anti-trafficking field in general?


Jesse: Yeah, it's over 10 years ago now. I went to Cuba on an educational research trip sponsored by Kent State University, and I got away from my handler at that point. Because, you know, then was not Cuba as it is now. It was not open. We were only allowed to see certain things. And went into the slums of Havana when I saw children for sale openly. And uh, a little twelve-year-old girl, I estimate she was about twelve, looked at me standing in front of a  solicitation sign. And I saw as she was purchase by someone for sex. It profoundly affected me. Went home, started googling things about human trafficking, learning about it, and four or five months later found myself in Kathmandu, Nepal with an organization called Nepal Orphan's Home. And I was working in the western provinces of Dang helping to rehabilitate children who were recovered the kamalari [kamlari] system, which is an indigenous form of slavery and trafficking there.


Victoria: Okay, so that indigenous form of slavery -- trafficking, do you mean like forced labor, sex trafficking? Both?


Jesse: All of the above. The kamalari [kamlari] system is an aspect of forced labor but there's also sexual trauma involved in it as well.


Victoria: Okay, okay. Yeah, so I wasn't able to attend your session at the conference on domestic child soldiers in the US. So since I wasn't able to hear it and I think it's something that would be of interest to our audience, could you kind of walk us through your argument? First of all, what do you mean by domestic child soldiers in the US? And how did you get started researching that?


Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. So, you need to know a little bit of my background if you're going to understand my argument. I'm from South Cleveland. I am a white man, and I was born, brought up and raised, in a predominately middle class, lower middle class black neighborhood in the south of Cleveland. And this is really important because, in growing up, I made it successfully, financially, educationally, where a lot of my classmates and friends didn't. And that is sort of where I come from. That I owe sort of my educational privilege to them because very, very few people coming out of my neighborhood have the opportunity to earn PhDs and let their voice be heard. So, when I talk about domestic child soldiering, it comes from their voices, not necessarily just that of my own. So my argument with domestic child soldiering is, when you hear the term child soldier, we have been habituated our entire lives to picture the same image in our head. And time and time again, when I ask people to describe child soldier, first off they're hesitant because they're a little bit nervous about bringing in socioeconomics or having an open discussion about race, or poverty, or borders. But generally I get out of them that they are talking about a black male holding an AK47 in an impoverished area of Africa. Whenever people hear child soldier, that's pretty much where they go to. And I've proven to that, I've shown that in dozens and dozens of lectures. And whenever you ask, where do child soldiers exist on a world map? They'll generally point to sub saharan Africa, sometimes southeast Asia, but that's about it. That is where we through media, through social media, through internet, so on and so forth, have been habituated to know child soldiering. However, when you actually look at what child soldiering is, it is a term that can be applied to a much broader area of oppression. Child soldering is a response. A lot of times we think of it as just an abstract form of thought, but it's a response to poverty, to social disorder, to lack of opportunity, to lack of education and survivability, and attraction to what's called to martyrdom, or heroic death. Now those are, child soldiering sort of forms when those conditions are met. We oftentimes learn about sex trafficking and we learn about force, fraud, and coercion. That is just sort of the buzzwords in there. When we have the attraction of heroic death, social disorder, lack of a strong family unit, lack of opportunity, lack of education, that is when child soldiering occurs. Now my argument with this is the United States government, the Trafficking in Persons Office, identifies that child  soldering goes on in several sub saharan African countries, and a couple southeast Asian countries. However, I believe that that is motivated by a large number of factors, most of them political. I believe that child soldiers and some aspects of domestic gang membership are the same thing. Much like the United States did not identify itself as having human trafficking before 2010, I believe that child soldiers are being intentionally shown as far away or "over there" things so that we do not have to address the issue as domestic gang members in the United States.


Victoria: Okay, yeah -- thank you so much for that explanation. First of all, I thought it was really interesting. Just some follow up questions, the criteria that you mentioned, you know like lack of education, lack of a strong family unit, things like that, is that officially defined somewhere in some document, or is that just the general consensus?


Jesse: It's not even the general consensus. Research on child soldiering is very, very limited right now. And as far as I know, I'm the only person, maybe one or two others, linking child soldiering with domestic gang membership. It took the better part of 10 or 15 years to come up with the force, fraud, and coercion in sex trafficking literature, and so the very few people who are working on child soldiering, there is not a consensus of the push-pull factors of the criteria, whatsoever, yet. It's way too new to have something like that.


Victoria: So, I guess it's something to look out for to see how that develops over time.  So have you then encountered any challenges in getting people to believe your argument? Because I think some people might say, "Oh well, gang violence isn't necessarily the same thing as fighting in a political, war-torn country." Or some might even argue like, “Gang members often traffick others, but they aren’t trafficked themselves”?


Jesse: Yes there's a tremendous amount of pushback. And that generally comes from people who have not been in the inner city. My suburban people often times just flat out reject this argument. Law enforcement reject this argument. However, when you look at an inner city -- my area's in Cleveland -- east Cleveland has no where to get food, it has no where to get employment, and the police are an occupying military force. It's rough to say that, but they are, where anyone can be stopped and frisked at any time, harrassed, and if they question or raise their voice whatsoever, they can be imprisoned on a false charge, they can have evidence planted on them, I mean, this is the same as that goes on in any sub saharan country. Domestic child soldiering is a response to that. Gangs form in order to survive. The local residents, they have to earn a living, they're going to survive no matter what. And if you can't get food, if you can't get water, if you can't be protected, if you can't get an education, the gang is the only way to survive. When you look at the narratives, the voices of child soldiers in sub saharan Africa, we weep over them. I mean we look at these kids, these poor kids, they were definitely victimized. But when we look at the same narratives of a young man in the inner city, we go, "Oh that perpetrator. That person needs to be locked up." And that comes from habituation. We have been fed the storyline, starting with the Reagan administration that a young child who commits a crime in the inner city, in a gang, is a perpetrator. And the young child who commits that same exact crime in sub saharan Africa is a victim.


Victoria: Actually what you just mentioned there with young children, so I'm -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong on this -- I'm assuming that a lot of people involved in gangs were probably recruited or joined as minors, and then they eventually become adults. So, for any I guess potential solutions that you might suggest, would it be kind of differently catered depending on the age of the person that's involved in this, or is it that minors and adults should get the same treatment?


Jesse: So, it's multiple levels. First off, for people to adopt this argument, they have to concentrate on children. Much like sex trafficking, uh research often surrounds children, so too does the domestic child soldiering research. It's rough to say this, but we have to sell this argument. And people care about kids. After 18, people rarely if ever care about adults. It's just, I mean it's just a fact of the matter. And when we look at, when we look at the different tiers right here, solutions for the children first are introducing food, water, and opportunity. When we have children who grow up with access to food, with access to water, education and economic opportunity, the reason to be either pushed or pulled into gang life -- that is not going to occur. Same thing with child soldiering. When you have a certain level of economic stability, food water, and education, domestic child soldiering doesn't take place.


Victoria: Okay, okay yeah, thank you so much for that explanation. I just have one more question and it's something that we ask everyone that we interview. What advice do you have for young anti-trafficking advocates, our audience members, who want to do something about human trafficking in general, or even child soldiering specifically?


Jesse: Well specifically in this aspect, which is child soldering, young anti-trafficking advocates have to put pressure on the Trafficking in Persons office to expand the scope of child soldiering research. There is virtually no research into this area. It is all being funneled into anti-sex trafficking work. And while anti-sex trafficking work is incredibly important, in no way am I diminishing this research whatsoever, it represents a very small minority of worldwide exploitation. If we truly want to make the world a more freer and better place, we have to put pressure on the Trafficking in Persons Office not to use itself as an area -- a political arena -- and to look at oppression across the board and not just throw itself where the money or the attention is. So put pressure on the TIP Office to really look at all facets of exploitation rather than just one or two.


Victoria: Okay, and so how would someone put pressure on the TIP Office? Like is there a way that our listeners could get in contact with them, or?


Jesse: Oh absolutely! Um, I mean the big thing is to contact the Trafficking in Persons Office directly. There's the main desk number, there's an email address. Or even more than that, is start to put pressure on conference organizers to expand the scope of human trafficking research. Because, you can go into any human trafficking conference around the world and 75 to 80% of the presenters will be talking about sex trafficking. And it's the same information coming out about sex trafficking. Pressure the conference organizers to include forced labor, child soldiering, domestic child soldiering, organ trafficking, so on and so forth. Because right now when you think human trafficking, that term has been made synonymous with sex trafficking, when human trafficking is a much larger scope of oppression.


Victoria: Okay, yeah, I also notice a lot of people use the term human trafficking when they really mean sex trafficking specifically. I see that all the time. But yeah, thank you for that advice. I really like that it's really specific and gives us concrete ideas of what we can do. Um, that was actually my last official question but if there's anything else that you want to add or discuss that I didn't bring up, then I guess now is your chance to do that.


Jesse: One of the big things that I would just like to mention is for young advocates to begin learning about the different forms of oppression. There is virtually no work going on outside of the world of sex trafficking, and that is a major shame. Right now my work into domestic soldiers and child soldiering in general is widely pushed back against because the audience has never picked up a book regarding it or read a narrative. The other thing that I also like to mention is when you're talking about areas of oppression, start incorporating people who don't have PhDs. My degree gives me instant credibility. When you hear Dr. Jesse Bach, "Oh I have to listen to them." However, people in east Cleveland, people in Maple Heights where I live, they don't have PhDs, but they have a heck of a lot to say, a lot of lived experience. So while we often time rely on the experts to discuss this, we also have to hear the voices of the people who live this every single day.


Dr. Bach talked about several issues that can lead to child soldiering, like not being able to get an education. For this episode’s Audible Audience segment, we’ll hear from a US-based advocate who is fighting human trafficking through education. We’ll include links to the organization and how you can help in our shownotes. If you want to be featured in one of our episodes, just send a 30-second audio clip to Tell us your name, country, and what you or an organization you work for are doing to fight human trafficking. And without further ado, take it away, Sarah.


Sarah: My name is Sarah Hathcock and I'm a 23-year-old young professional from Washington state (USA). I'm partnered with an organization based in Kete Krachi, Ghana called Pacodep. They rescue children from Lake Volta who are being forced to work under horrible conditions. There are about 70 kids living in the Pacodep aftercare home, The Village of Life. School is starting back up so if you would like to contribute to our school supply fundraiser, visit our Facebook or Instagram page @villageoflifeghana for more information on how to donate.


This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on September 30th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.


Pacodep - Village of Life Ghana:…p/village-of-life​
Village of Life School Book Drive (Select "VOL school book drive"):


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