Reported cases of sexual trafficking in the United States are horrifying and, unfortunately, not uncommon. In recent years, our federal courts have heard cases involving a group of Thai women - promised good-paying restaurant jobs - forced into prostitution upon their arrival in New York; a group of Mexican teenagers - told they would be working as waitresses and child- and elder-care workers - held in sexual slavery in Florida and the Carolinas; a syndicate of smugglers and pimps who brought hundreds of Asian women (some as young as 13) into the United States, forcing them to work as prostitutes - and making them live in bondage - until their "contracts" were paid off.

News of such cases is, of course, appalling. But as the majority of reported instances of sexual trafficking occurs in large urban centers, it's the sort of news story that, in our area, can all too easily be greeted with, "But at least that sort of thing doesn't happen here."

Or does it?

On Thursday, January 5, Davenport's Temple Emanuel, the city's Congregation of the Humility of Mary, and Bettendorf's St. Peter's Episcopal Church will address the issue of sexual trafficking in the heartland in the interfaith forum "Trafficking of Women in the Midwest: Can It Happen Here?" Beginning at 7 p.m. at Temple Emanuel (1115 Mississippi Avenue, Davenport), the forum - open to the public - will commence with a welcome by Iowa Senator Maggie Tinsman, followed by a presentation by Leslie R. Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., whose organization has worked to increase awareness of this national concern since 1999.

Sexual trafficking in the United States famously entered the national debate in January 2004, when the subject was the focus of a New York Times Magazine cover story by Peter Landesman. The article itself wound up the subject of great debate; the numbers for those subjected to sexual trafficking can't be positively ascertained - due not only to the impossibility of accumulating accurate figures for black-market commerce, but to continued questions over what, exactly, constitutes sexual trafficking - and numerous critics believed that the figures Landesman presented were, at best, highly improbable. (For both sides of the issue, visit ( .)

For its part, the Center for Women Policy Studies estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 women are trafficked into the United States every year, mostly from impoverished communities in Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America. (For a labyrinthine explanation of how these numbers might have been estimated, visit (>).) Facing horrific poverty and an utter lack of economic opportunities, these women are often sold into a type of indentured servitude by their families; they are promised a life of wealth and security in the States only to be kept prisoner, and oftentimes forced into prostitution, pornography, and exploitative marriages.

Before the publication of the New York Times Magazine article, though, the issue of sexual trafficking first began receiving widespread attention with the federal bill that became the Victims of Trafficking & Violence Protection Act of 2000, and in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the release of the State Department's first report on trafficking.

Yet as Wolfe stressed in a 2003 address to the Connecticut state legislature, the report was by no means comprehensive, not focusing enough attention, for instance, on the protection of trafficked women and children. Although numerous federal trials have resulted in indictments and convictions for sexual traffickers over the years - in such cases as United States v. Satia & Nanji in 2001 and United States v. Jiminez-Calderon in 2002 (for details on these and similar cases, visit ( - Wolfe and the Center for Women Policy Studies began urging a set of state-legislative initiatives in the handling of sexual trafficking, the sort that will be addressed in Thursday night's interfaith forum.

The inspiration for the interfaith forum came from an e-mail received by Temple Emanuel's Cantor Gail Posner Karp.

"I read an e-mail from Senator Tinsman," says Cantor Karp, "who was introducing legislation on trafficking," partially inspired by a meeting with a state prosecutor who had been working on a case involving a sexual trafficker from Iowa.

Senator Tinsman was "incredibly moved by the issue," says Cantor Karp, who added that, soon after reading the e-mail, "I called her up and she sent a packet of information, and I knew it was an issue that we needed to build awareness of." Cantor Karp subsequently "sent out an e-mail to 35 female clergy members" in the area, and was delighted to discover "a groundswell of support" for the forum.

Cantor Karp says that the forum's purpose is threefold: (1) to identify what constitutes sexual trafficking; (2) to enable attendees to recognize indicators about if and where sexual trafficking might be occurring; and (3) to engage community interest in the creation of legislation to secure victims' rights.

This last point, Cantor Karp says, is especially important, as victims of sexual trafficking are often "put on house detention" after their captors have been apprehended and "made to feel like criminals" themselves - "They're not given automatic refugee status," adds Cantor Karp - and part of the forum's goal is to stress the need for the creation of "safe houses" for abused women. Cantor Karp says, "We want to encourage people to write letters" to local legislators requesting additional funding for and greater awareness of this issue, which attendees will have the opportunity to do at the conclusion of Thursday's program.

By focusing attention on the pressing issue of sexual trafficking and exploitation, Karp says, the interfaith forum hopes to play a role in the curtailing of this national tragedy, echoing the sentiments of Wolfe, who ended her 2003 address thusly: "Together, we can truly save the lives and spirits of thousands of young women and girls - and lift our own spirits as well."

Further information on "Trafficking of Women in the Midwest: Can It Happen Here?" is available by calling Temple Emanuel's Gail Karp at (563)326-4419 or the Congregation of the Humility of Mary's Lisa Bellomy at (563)336-8404.

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