How Can We Prevent Sex Trafficking If We’re Too Afraid to Talk about It?

Lately, as I’ve taken on the day-to-day role of managing the Shamrock Foundation, I find myself talking a lot more about the foundation.  Before now, the foundation only really ever came up in situations where I was talking to people working in the same or similar fields, who are already familiar with the types of  issues that we’re confronting.  But now, when just anyone asks me, “What do you do?” I have a direct lead-in to share about the foundation.  People are usually very interested at first to hear about what we do, acknowledging how rewarding it must be to do this work.  They’ll often ask what our mission is, and I’ll share it, along with describing the kinds of organizations that we support and the issues that those organizations are tackling.

Most of the time, the conversation will be going along quite well until I mention that we fund various organizations that fight sex trafficking, including sex trafficking in the U.S.  That’s when things start to turn awkward.  People are usually ok with talking about the sex trafficking that’s happening in other countries–faraway places that can be categorized as “different.”  Maybe they’ve seen the (terrible) movie Taken or heard about the trafficking of Eastern European or Southeast Asian women.  But the trafficking of American women?  American children?  That’s less commonly known about, and people often appear pretty uncomfortable with talking about it.

People demonstrate their discomfort in various ways.  Sometimes they laugh or crack a joke.  Sometimes they just sit there paralyzed, stricken with silence and with a pained expression on their faces, clearly wishing for a change in the subject.  When that happens I generally let it drop, and we move on to something else.  But it makes me wonder, “How can I talk about the fight against sex trafficking, particularly domestic sex trafficking, in a way that doesn’t just make people uncomfortable?  How can I elicit their interest in a difficult subject?  Engage them?  Become an advocate for the cause?”  Most importantly I think, “How can we ever hope to prevent sex trafficking if we’re too afraid to talk about it?”

Often, it seems that people are unaware that this type of crime is happening right here at home, or they can’t believe that it could be happening here in the U.S.  We’re progressive–we’re American–we’re supposed to have choices about our futures, and we’re supposed to be able to live the American dream.  Maybe people think that if American women and children are engaged in prostitution, it’s because they chose that life.  Unlike the poor and marginalized in developing countries, there’s a belief that if you’re American, it can’t be exploitation–it must be a choice.  If you’re American, and living that life, it must be your fault, and it’s up to you to get out.

I’m guessing this is why people feel uncomfortable discussing the topic–it threatens our perceptions of ourselves, our values, and the country we live in.  We’re the world’s largest economy, we’re educated, we’re a democracy, we embrace freedom, and we don’t tolerate the kinds of socioeconomic conditions that would lead a child to this life, right?  However, the facts of domestic sex trafficking tell a different story:

How many it happens to:  The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American children are the victims of commercial sexual trafficking and prostitution each year.  (July 19, 2010 Testimony of Ernie Allen, President and CEO, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, for the Victims’ Rights Caucus, Human Trafficking Caucus, U.S. House of Representatives, available at

Who it happens to:  The average age of a child first used in prostitution [in the U.S.] is 11 to 14, with some as young as 9 years of age.  Children used in prostitution consist of both male and female victims and come from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.  A large percentage of these children left home because of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.  These children often have low self-esteem and are extremely vulnerable.  These runaways become a prime target for sex offenders, pornographers, and pimps.  (June 7, 2005 Testimony from Chris Swecker, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division, FBI, available at, hereafter referred to as “FBI Testimony”)

What makes them vulnerable:  Numerous studies estimate that 70 to 90 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth and adult women in the sex industry were sexually abused prior to their recruitment.  (Rachel Lloyd, Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, 2011, p. 65)

Why it’s so hard to escape:  Juveniles who become involved in sexual trafficking face a myriad of obstacles and enormous needs if they want to leave that life, including very basic needs such as safe housing, subsistence, and schooling.  In addition, they may need drug treatment, medical treatment, and mental health services.  They may have problems related to victimization prior to their life on the streets.  Most cannot return to their family of origin, so they need help to prepare for independent living.  (FBI Testimony)

From these statistics we can begin to see that, like most of the issues being tackled by the organizations that we support, it’s not quick to talk about the dynamics of domestic sex trafficking.  It’s not really possible to sum it all up in one or two sentences that explain the factors that lead to trafficking, what we can do about it, why it matters, and why it’s not something to joke about.  It takes time and a desire to understand how issues of poverty, abuse, neglect, and a lack of education can converge to increase the likelihood that someone might become a victim of trafficking.

I’m starting to get comfortable with the realization that talking about sex trafficking will make those I’m talking to uncomfortable.  But that doesn’t make me want to stop talking about it.  It just makes me want to figure out how to talk about it in a way that people can take in, and to arm myself with the statistics and information that will resonate with people and make them realize that not only is sex trafficking happening here in the U.S., there are also things that each one of us can do to fight the problem.  I’m ready to keep talking.


Field Visit to Guatemala with Water For People

In February, I traveled to Santa Cruz del Quiche in Guatemala with Water For People for a chance to see its work firsthand.  Going into the trip, I was skeptical, and I had a lot of questions.  Successfully implementing sustainable clean water and sanitation projects in rural areas of developing countries is difficult work.  It’s also difficult to tell the story of that work in a sound bite.  Yet many non-profit organizations working in the sector try to do so, with a simplified message that infrastructure alone is the solution to improving lives.  The message that often gets promoted is that building projects = clean water = healthier, better lives.  While that message is straightforward and appealing to supporters of the work, it’s not very accurate, and it leaves a number of questions unanswered.  What happens after a project is constructed?  Who ensures that water keeps flowing?  How do we know a project is having its intended impact and that people’s lives are actually improving?  Do beneficiaries understand the benefits of clean water access?  Do they know how to use their ecological sanitation latrines and understand how to practice personal hygiene?  I knew Water For People was working to address these questions, and I looked forward to learning the answers during my weeklong visit.

There were many good experiences over the course of that week–visiting schools where students were learning the importance of healthy hygiene habits, seeing the large water system in Parraxquin that had been financed primarily by the community through the efforts of its leaders–but it was the final project visit that impacted me the most.  In Las Canoas, which seemed to be the poorest community that we visited, we spoke with community leaders about their newly completed ecological sanitation (“ecosan”) latrine project.  Ecosan latrines separate and collect both urine and fecal matter in ways that allow the waste matter to be reused as a pesticide and fertilizer (in the case of urine) and compost (in the case of fecal matter).  We learned that the community had been hesitant at first to embrace this new technology.  Out of the 90 households in the community, only 24 had chosen to participate in the project.  Yet now that these 24 ecosan latrines had been completed and were in use, the remaining 66 households were interested in joining in the project.  With a group of 12 donors watching and 5 staff members present, including headquarters staff from Denver, the community leaders asked if Water For People would return to the community to construct another 66 ecosan latrines.  I knew this was a significant moment.  How would Water For People respond?  Would the answer be consistent with its model, or would it be the easy, donor-friendly answer that responds to the immediate problem but doesn’t provide a long-term, sustainable solution?  Would the staff visiting from headquarters provide the answer, or would it be the Guatemalan field staff that would respond?

Watching as everyone, including the headquarters staff, looked to the director of the Guatemalan field staff to respond was probably the most meaningful moment of my visit.   He took charge of answering the question, saying that Water For People would continue the conversation with the community, and that Water For People was looking for committed involvement and investment on the part of the remaining 66 households before returning to assist with the expansion of the project.  He explained that Water For People wanted to empower the community members by providing them with the awareness, training, and capacity building to really understand, and be able to improve, their sanitation circumstances themselves rather than by just constructing the infrastructure for them and being done with it.  He gave an honest answer in line with Water For People’s model, rather than the answer the donors might have wanted to hear in that moment, when you just feel a desire to do something to make people’s lives better right then and there, even if it won’t solve the problem over the long term.

Why did his answer matter so much to me?  Why is it important that the field staff have autonomy and that the local communities feel empowered?  Because without these two things, projects are much more likely to fail.  Giving authority to the field staff to devise the most appropriate solutions for the rural Guatemalans that they interact with on a daily basis means that the projects being implemented are much more likely to serve their purpose.  It means that Water For People isn’t just implementing the projects that are the easiest to market to donors but instead is implementing the projects that are truly needed.  These projects may not be the easiest to fund, or the quickest to implement, but they are the surest to succeed.  This implementation also has at its core the empowerment of local communities.  Through their empowerment, the communities take ownership of their projects, meaning that the communities take responsibility for a portion of the construction costs, the ongoing management and maintenance of the projects, and the continuing costs of the projects.

Aren’t these people poor, though?  Is it fair to ask them to pay to construct the projects and keep them running?  It may not feel fair to us, but don’t we want to support projects that last for the long-term?  Don’t we want communities to have the tools to solve the issues they face, rather than making them eternally dependent on our feelings of charity?  The goal is to empower communities to become self-sufficient in meeting their water and sanitation needs, so that they’ll no longer need to look to outside support.  Water For People is working toward that goal by growing the capacity of local government and community leaders–by teaching them how to use their projects, fix them when they break, practice good hygiene and sanitation, and ask for a little money from their community members to pay for maintenance and ultimately pay to expand or replace projects when their useful lives end.  These solutions are designed to solve the problem of clean water and sanitation access.  These solutions are how Water For People is working to ensure that Everyone Forever has clean water and sanitation access.


Water For People works to build a world where all people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and where no one suffers or dies from a water- or sanitation-related disease.  Visit for more information about Water For People and its work.

Welcome to the Shamrock Foundation Blog

Hello!  I’m Shelley, and I’ll be blogging about news and stories related to the Shamrock Foundation’s activities and mission.  You might have seen our mission statement on the home page.  The four of us who make up the foundation’s board of directors–we’re all women–are passionate about fulfilling our mission to empower women and children.  We don’t limit our funding to one geographic area; instead, we support organizations working all over the United States and across the globe, too.  We also provide funding to organizations working on numerous issues that affect women and children–from clean water and sanitation to human trafficking to financial access.  Mostly we’re just looking to support organizations that are doing really great work to empower women and children, wherever they might be and whatever they might focus on.  On the blog, I’m looking forward to sharing what we’re doing and what we’re learning.  If you’d like more information about the Shamrock Foundation, please feel free to contact us at