Dominican Outreach completed a successful Human Trafficking Conference over the course of two days in Puerto Plata, on June 24-25th. An NGO from Jarabacoa came to visit projects and other groups who are working to stop the trafficking of women and children in the Dominican Republic. Conference participants visited the American Consulate, a Women’s Training facility, the local prison, the public hospital, police stations, and a microcredit office. These are all places and programs that have contact and interest in the issue of modern day slavery.
At the conference we heard from women who have been lured to other countries with false promises only to be trapped into a system of sexual slavery. A recovering victim told us her story how she was lured to Greece for six years to work as a prostitute. It is estimated that there are between 17-33 thousand Dominican women who have similar stories. This type of trafficking is the second largest international crime in the world behind drug trafficking.
We also heard from a panel of women who work in Dominican bars at night under contract for a year at a time. Owners control the women by holding their passports, identity cards, or threaten their families back home.
Not all human trafficking is sexual. Children are trafficked as domestic labor. This is perhaps a larger problem. To illustrate this issue which may affect about 50,000 on this island we also heard from a young man from Haiti who was brought here to sell candy and shine shoes in the streets. He worked for several years for a man who told him that money was being sent home to his family. This was not true. He worked for years never going to school, often not having a place to sleep at night, and being threatened by police by day.
Father Johnson of Dominican Outreach, reported on recent census work monitoring the various kinds of human trafficking. He told of a woman in San Marcos who “bought” three children from Haiti who work to earn money for her. She was asked what she does with the money. She reported that she uses it to send her child to a private school. She was further asked if the Haitian children go to school. She said, “No, they are just Haitians.”
All the victims spoke of being arrested multiple times. A bar owner and a security person who manages many of these women reported that the owners are not arrested because protitution is not illegal. To them it is a labor issue when women try to run away or not show up for work. Yet it is these owners who are actually the instigators and source of these problems. Nevertheless these bar owners who trade women are supportive of social services for their employees and have seen the benefit of Dominican Outreach for their employees. One owner offered us his place of business to interview a panel of women.
The second day of the conference we vistited a jail where women are held in confinement with male prisoners. There is no food, water, or even beds in these jails: just a concrete cell with metal bars. Because the women are working in a city where they do not have family they depend on friends and organizations who assist with food, medicine, and social intervention. The women are arrested for trying to leave the business but more often than not they do not have enough money to pay people “shaking them down” in the streets.
The head of a children’s NGO (Esperanza Means Hope) reported that she runs a home for dozens of these exploited children in the street. Most of them are Haitian. She reported how the system works to traffick these children benefiting an entire underground system of adults who make money off this system.
The regional head of the public school told us how thousands of children in the school are affected by this system of human trafficking. Children show up at school reporting that their mothers have disappeared. Children will often move around with their mothers who are sold to bar owners in other cities affecting their educational outcome. All the women interviewed during the panel discussion reported having between 1`-6 children. The superintendent of public schools invited members of the conference to develop materials to help train teachers to identify the signs of children affected by human trafficking.
The manager of a microfinance office shared with us a pilot program they have for victims of sexual trafficking. They begin with Bible studies to help the women inspect their lives. After they show signs of positive change they are invited to be part of larger women’s groups who provide them emotional support. After a period of time they participate in a women owned and managed business supported by microcredit.
Also the police will need training in this area and be encouraged to apply the law according to international standards.
Conference participants agreed to establish a national network of information. Consulate officials encouraged and welcomed the promise of information and data to measure this important issue.