Updated Fri, Mar 14, 2014 1:11 pm
Modern slavery has built a rich and powerful industry on the backs of men, women and children. Generating over $32 billion a year, the exploitation of over 27 million people has made human trafficking the third-largest industry of international crime - right behind illegal drugs and illegal weapons trafficking. The forced sex and labor trades are often perceived as a developing nation or “Third World” issue. But these crimes are happening everywhere: in the U.S., in Ohio and in Athens.
Students of Ohio University and members of the Athens community have banded together to put an end to human trafficking. Through awareness, education and action, activists are fulfilling their plans for change.
Last September, two Athens County residents were arrested for the alleged human trafficking of a 16-year-old girl. Aileen Mays was charged with one count of trafficking in persons and three counts of compelling prostitution of the girl to registered sex offender Fred Kittle, Sr. in exchange for drugs and money. The girl was taken into child services for treatment and protection. Mays and Kittle were both dismissed of charges after their trials in October. The Athens Messenger reported that both Mays’ and Kittle’s cases are still under investigation and have potential to be brought back up in front of a grand jury. Mays faces more serious punishment if found guilty with the possibility of 10 to 15 years in prison. Kittle faces the possibility of four years in prison.
“I think that was really eye-opening for a lot of people on this subject. It is really hard to get people to understand what is going on and the fact that it is going on in our backyards,” said Megan Gallagher, president and founder of the Ohio University End Slavery Movement (ESM).
Gallagher, an OU senior in communications studies, has stepped up to combat the growing issue of human trafficking in the United States. She created ESM in February 2013 to raise awareness of modern slavery on a global and local scale. The organization coordinates events to educate and inform students and residents on the current state of human trafficking. Its goal is to ultimately create a slave-free Ohio.
“My inspiration to start this was to not just have the student body, but to bring everything surrounding Athens together,” Gallagher said.
Last fall, ESM was able to broadcast its message to the community for an entire week of events. The organization’s work for the End Slavery Week included panel discussions, documentary screenings, interactive and immersive learning activities and speaker Jillian Mourning, who shared her traumatic experience as a survivor of trafficking. The week ended with over 1,000 signatures of students and residents pledging to join the anti-slavery movement.
The organization, with the hard work of more than 50 members, received recognition by the Ohio Governor’s office to be certified as one of the state’s 14 human trafficking coalitions.
Ohio: Identifying the Problem
Detecting human trafficking is a challenge. Brothels are hidden in massage parlors, salons, clubs, bars, schools and even suburban homes. Victims often enter the slave trade through the coercion of violence or the promise of a better life. These outlets for trafficking are all too familiar in the state of Ohio.
Densely populated urban hubs such as Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus present challenges to law enforcement when tracking down perpetrators and victims. Toledo has received a great deal of negative publicity after being named the fourth-worst city for human trafficking in the U.S. in a 2009 report on the Prevalence of Human Trafficking in Ohio by the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission. But Gallagher sees this discovery with optimism. She explained that Toledo, while under fire, may have the most practice of trafficking prevention since they were able to identify such an enormous network.
“Training is so vital. How can police spot [trafficking] if they don’t know what to look for?” Gallagher said.
Since 2011, Attorney General Mike DeWine has assembled a Human Trafficking Commission of appointed and elected officials ranging from politicians and members of law enforcement to religious leaders and community members. The committee meets on a regular basis to investigate the roots of trafficking in Ohio and to create effective legislation to prosecute traffickers. In March and April, the Attorney General’s office will offer Human Relation courses to train law enforcement on how to identity patterns and victims and to be familiar with the new anti-trafficking laws. Updated training techniques are necessary to counter a perpetrator’s evolving tactics when addressing the slave trade in different environments.
Gallagher said that with the creation of ESM, Athens can expect to see more human trafficking come to light.
“It’s been there. It’s been going on and this is now something we can identify as a team, as a community, as a body, to speak out and really come together on this issue,” she said.
Too Close to Home
Activists enter the anti-slavery movement for several reasons. Either inspired by the tales of survivors, or from personal experience, the members of this movement have decided to act.
Gallagher joined the cause after attending an informational Christian conference in Georgia called "Passion." She was challenged by the conference to do something to stop an injustice ongoing and she chose to focus on modern slavery.
Jillian Mourning, a human trafficking survivor, ESM speaker and Chillicothe native, was able to share her story at End Slavery Week. She was tricked into trafficking through the promise of a modeling career and then blackmailed to stay in the sex trade after being raped by two men on videotape.
Gregg Montella - an Athens native and recent volunteer for ESM and leader of his own movement for change - had a disturbingly close experience with local human trafficking.
“When my sister was here about 10 years ago, she was nearly trafficked out of a local high school,” Montella recalled. He eventually became an activist for human trafficking prevention through spirituality and activism. He explained that slaves need to be physically set free to be spiritually free.
Montella has traveled to more than 63 countries and focuses on modern slavery in Eastern Europe. He is the founder and director of One Heart International Commission, which provides physical and spiritual support to victims of trafficking in Moldova, a small country between Romania and Ukraine. After years of prevention work, Montella has recognized a formula for modern sexual slavery.
“Anywhere there are men and there are girls, there is going to be trafficking. Especially in areas where there has not been a lot of awareness. It happens everywhere,” Montella explained.
Innovative Compassion: Little Piney Cove
ESM continues to attract more supporters who want to make a difference. OU Lancaster regional campus senior and business management major Antoinette Bowman attended End Slavery Week to make connections with other activists and to help support survivors after they escape the sex trade.
A common problem for survivors is reentering society. Victims fall off the grid of mainstream life while being trafficked. They often have an unfinished education and little to no work experience.
“I want to be able to give them that first step, to be able to put something on a resume, to be able to say, ‘I have done something,’” Bowman said.
She is in the process of creating Little Piney Cove, a Fair Trade boutique that will hire survivors of human trafficking. Bowman wants to present the opportunity for survivors to have a foundation of work experience to put on paper.
“A lady I work with right now, she used to dance and she has nothing on her resume and she still can’t find work,” Bowman explained.
By creating a business that involves survivors and Fair Trade, it can serve a dual purpose and attract consumers as another way to help.
“I want to be able to get the community involved,” she said. “You’re buying Fair Trade and you get to employ these wonderful survivors. They have so much potential and we just don’t know it.”
Gallagher feels confident passing on her organization to capable hands next year. The group has received continuous financial backing to further its mission.
“We have been getting unbelievable support throughout the university. I thought funding was going to be our biggest issue,” Gallagher explained. “But we have received funding from several different organizations. It’s been really supportive.”
Other nonprofits struggle to give full attention to their movement or message when they need to spend a great deal of time applying for grants to fund their activities. Gallagher’s nonprofit is an exceptional case.
“We have this voice that all of these different nonprofits don’t necessarily have,” she said. “Here we are a free university giving students a philanthropic opportunity.”
ESM plans to continue giving students the opportunity to help survivors of human trafficking and broaden their message across Ohio through more informational events.
From the trafficking of young sex slaves in bars throughout Moldova to the alleged sale of a girl’s body for drugs in Athens, awareness is key to stopping human trafficking from getting any closer to home.
*Infographic by Olivia Reaney for Backdrop Magazine
Editor's note: This story first ran in the spring 2014 of Backdrop Magazine, a student-produced publication at Ohio University. Melissa Thompson, Backdrop's editor-in-chief, and Backdrop reporter Sara Portwood gave WOUB permission to re-post.