Editor’s Note: Jonathan Todres is distinguished university professor and professor of law at Georgia State University and coauthor of “Preventing Child Trafficking: A Public Health Approach.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Human trafficking is a grave violation of basic human dignity. In more than 20 years of research and advocacy on the issue, I have yet to meet an individual who is not appalled when they first learn about human trafficking and the harms it inflicts. Yet it continues to thrive, and nearly every sector of society is implicated.
Because of human trafficking’s reach and complexity, ending this crime will require a comprehensive, integrated response in which all sectors of society play a role. Law enforcement, social services, health care, education, transportation, media, and the private sector are all well-positioned to make a difference. However, one critical constituency is often overlooked: Children.
Children can, and in many cases already do, play a critical role in the fight against human trafficking.
With limited exceptions, policymakers and anti-trafficking advocates have failed to embrace children as partners. Several reasons underlie this resistance.
To begin, the prevailing view of childhood sees the youngest members of society as a group needing protection. We must shield children from the horrors of the world, the thinking goes. The problem with this view is that it ignores the lived experience of millions of children.
Many children are trafficked. Even more are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation. Still others live in unsafe neighborhoods and face daily threats to their rights and wellbeing. While we must be mindful of traumatizing children, pretending that human trafficking doesn’t exist for their sake is at best naïve and, at worst, harmful.
A second common argument is that children are too immature to solve complex societal problems. This echoes old notions that children should be “seen and not heard.”
Setting aside that adults have had limited success “solving” human trafficking, ignoring children means missing out on important insights that can help advance prevention efforts. Interviews with child trafficking survivors have shed light on such things as where children sought out resources or help before they were trafficked, changes in their lives that left them more vulnerable, and more.
In addition, recruitment of children into trafficking sometimes occurs by peers, away from adults who want to protect children. By involving and listening to children, we can learn more about pathways into trafficking and opportunities for positive interventions.
Finally, many are unsure how to genuinely listen to and partner with young people. We can overcome this by collaborating with individuals who have expertise in engaging with children and adolescents. From preschool teachers to youth advocates, there are people in all communities with such expertise.
The right to be heard
Beyond the value that children provide, there is another reason for engaging young people: they have a right to be heard.
Pursuant to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely accepted human rights treaty in history – children have the right to express their views on all matters that affect their lives. That doesn’t mean children get to decide everything, but they do have the right to be part of the process.
As the Convention establishes, the right to be heard belongs to all children capable of forming their own views. There is no minimum age requirement. Of course, a 5-year-old and 15-year-old are different. The Convention acknowledges developmental differences by requiring that children’s views be given due weight consistent with each child’s “age and maturity.”
In other words, how old (or young) a child is or how mature (or immature) their views are does not change whether the child has a right to express their opinion. Rather, age and maturity dictate how much impact or influence their views have.
Supporting youth voices
Given the value of children’s insights and the mandate of children’s rights law, we need to overcome resistance to involving youth. Indeed, research on youth participation shows that many children want a voice in decisions that affect their lives.
Moreover, when given opportunities and appropriate support, youth can contribute in extraordinary ways. Recent examples such as Malala Yousafzai’s work on girls’ education, Parkland students’ advocacy on gun violence, and Greta Thunberg’s efforts to address climate change, show that young people can change the world.
Children can also make a difference in the fight against human trafficking. And we can take three steps that will help support them:
1. Create seats at the table for children in anti-trafficking initiatives, so they can be involved at every stage in the process, from the design of new policy and programs, to implementation, to evaluation.
2. Stop requiring children to conform to and work solely within adult-oriented structures. We need to meet children where they are and allow them to express their views in their own creative ways.
3. Listen. We must start listening to children.
Ending human trafficking will take a monumental, coordinated effort. We have a better chance of achieving that goal if we listen to, learn from, and partner with children.