(Editor's note: The following story is published with permission from the Akron Area Eutopia Report.)
Did you know that there are more human slaves in the world right now than ever before in history?
Approximately 27 million people are trapped in this spider web of perverse modern day slavery throughout the world – and even scarier – 13 million children.
Human trafficking is an illegal, underground business that takes on many forms, mostly involving sex and work for little to no pay.
This past weekend, the Chapel, an Akron-based Christian church, hosted "Stop the Trafficking," a conference that highlighted the horrifying facts and statistics on the reality of this mind-boggling 21st century form of slavery. It also offered the hope of how you and I can take steps to end this.
Right Here in America
Although India may be known as the "epicenter for human trafficking," it exists everywhere. and has quickly crept its way into both small and large towns all across America.
"Human trafficking and sexual slavery is going on right here in Akron, Ohio," said Beth Blackburn, a volunteer at Rahab Ministries. "It's not just an overseas thing."
Toledo: The Hub of it All
Approximately 100 - 300,000 underage girls are being sold in America every year with 50,000 women and children trafficked in the United States alone.
Its most booming cities in the United States are: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington, DC. Toledo, Ohio follows close behind, ranking 4th in the nation for providing children to the sex trade.
One would imagine that these atrocities would have disappeared by the 21st century, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Closing our eyes and imagining this is happening in some far off land - but not here - is a false sense of denial.
Lt. Terry Pasko with the Akron Police Department shared how local girls and women are getting wrapped up in this. Pasko said the most likely victims of trafficking are "juveniles, those who've aged out of foster care and runaways."
Victims are often found at local massage parlors and strip clubs. Pasko will never forget the 14-year-old girl his department found working as a stripper in Akron. Young girls are often lured in by being offered "modeling jobs," only to find out later that they were victims of a scam.
"Toledo is a hub of activity for human trafficking," Pasko said of our neighbor. He also said that "99 percent of our prostitutes are drug addicts."
A Time to Speak Up
The "Stop the Trafficking" conference was held not only to shed light on this issue, but also to call it into action. The church pews were filled with individuals, young and old, wanting to educate themselves and create change.
"It's happening in Middle America and its small towns – not just New York or L.A.," warned Paul Sartarelli, Sr. Pastor of The Chapel. "These stories will shake our hearts and minds.
The conference had a three-fold purpose. The theme was to shine a light on the dark issues in three parts: The darkness and reality of this issue in the United States and abroad, hope for change and a call to action, including opportunities to step forward and make a difference.
"The goal is to inform about what's going on in the world and our backyard, and to give an opportunity to link up with people globally and locally," Sartarelli said.
It is estimated that 80 percent of those pulled into the trafficking trap are female; 50% are children, according to the U.S. State Department. The average age span of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old. Minor victims in the United States are sold on average 10-15 times per day.
This exploitation of people against their will for monetary profit offers victims little or no pay. It is the fastest growing criminalized industry in the world only to illegal drugs and estimated to bring in $35 billion each year.
Today, young girls are being traded across international borders as a segment of the 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year. Thousands were traded into sex slavery right out of Toledo. These victims can be found anywhere from working at the nail salon to waitressing at a local restaurant.
Hard economic times has been said to have led to the growth of this "underground economy."
Ohio and its Children
At least 1,800 people at any point in time in Ohio are held in trafficking bondage. Las Vegas child sex victims come mostly from Toledo. Children as young as 6-months-old have been reported to be sold.
In sex tourism, men pay $1,000 for 20 minutes to use girls' age six months to 12 years. Human traffickers are increasingly trafficking pregnant women for their newborns who are then sold on the black market.
Ways to Fight Back
These men, women and children who are caught up in such horrific situations need people with the power of their voice to stand up for them.
"My hope and prayer is that God will open our eyes, break our hearts and move us to action," said Carolyn Custis James, president of Whitby Forum and Synergy Women's Network.
"The early church was renowned for its works of justice," she recalled of a people who set a great example for the generations to come and whose footsteps she hopes we'll follow.
There are many ways to help stand against this atrocity including prayer, action and inaction by boycotting goods used to fuel slavery.
"U.S. dollars are funding trafficking", James said. "Educate yourself (so that you aren't) purchasing goods that are produced by slaves."
People in the United States are rising up to empower women locally and nationally facing this darkness, often through teaching them an art or trade. Women at Risk International and Freedom Stones are great examples of this.
Freedom Climb is also a non-profit that benefits the freedom of slaves by raising awareness and funds to help women in bondage break free. Women for Oppressed Women (W.O.W.) is a ministry of the Chapel, helping oppressed women locally and overseas in Mozambique. For more information contact Kathie Brown (330)928-4493.
Grace Haven House is the first organization in the State of Ohio to provide a group home for children and youth removed from the human trafficking system. Previously, the law dictated that they had to be sent to jail.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, Rahab Ministries hosted a premiere of the trafficking documentary "Nefarious" held at the Front Porch Café.
"There's been footage filmed all over the world and experts in the industry giving facts on human trafficking," said Beth Blackburn, a volunteer with Rahab ministries. "It kind of just exposes it. This is one of the most honest films because it ties prostitution to human trafficking. What we find is that where you find prostitution, there will be human trafficking. We realized that the women we serve are actually trafficking and have been sexual slavery victims."
If you think you have seen a victim of human sex trafficking - child or adult, even an infant - contact the following organization anytime toll free, 24 hours a day: National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 888-373-7888.
Watch for Part Two next week on what is happening overseas together with inspiring stories on how you can make a difference!