Lucy Liu on field visit with UNICEF in 2008 to Cote d’Ivoire. Photo credit: U.S. Fund for UNICEF.In the past several years I’ve met with girls and women who have survived brutal treatment as sex trafficking victims, and have been involved with several documentaries about their struggle to survive and give back.

In the past several years I’ve met with girls and women who have survived brutal treatment as sex trafficking victims, and have been involved with several documentaries about their struggle to survive and give back.

Meena Haseena was nine when she was kidnapped from her home in Bihar, India, and taken to a brothel where she was beaten and raped for twelve years. When she ran away to get help from the police, they returned her to the brothel, asking only that she be spared beatings. (New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, chronicled her story in his book with Sheryl WuDunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”)

This is human trafficking, a lucrative and growing transnational crime that brings in roughly $32 billion per year[1] internationally. Of those profits, $28 billion[2] are made from commercial sexual exploitation, which characterizes 79% of identified trafficking cases.[3] The victims are predominantly female.

As the United States Government takes this week to consider crime and violence perpetrated specifically against women, we must think of the circumstances that lead to girls and women like Meena being trafficked into captivity and viciously raped of their rights. In the brothel, Meena wasn’t allowed condoms, and so she bore a daughter and son in captivity. They were taken away from her and raised as slaves. When Meena learned that she might be killed, she managed to escape, but it took her 14 years to rescue her first child, a daughter, from the brothel.

The organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide ultimately helped rescue Meena’s daughter from the brothel and then started a boarding school in Bihar to protect and educate girls. In school, girls are not as at risk for being kidnapped. This is success. There are many organizations working to address child trafficking, and their solutions deserve attention.

UNICEF, for example, established anti-trafficking committees in three districts of India and trained police on relevant Indian laws that protect the rights of potential trafficking victims.[4] They learned that police and state authorities provide models for their communities by enforcing laws against the exploitation of women and girls. In those districts, if a girl goes to the police to report being trafficked into a brothel, we can only hope that the police won’t send her back, but instead, shut down the brothel.

These are baby steps. But the bigger obligation is to empower vulnerable women and girls so that they don’t fall prey to traffickers from the very start, risk exposure to HIV, or suffer terrible abuse. Vulnerable families need economic alternatives to using their children for income. They may turn to this because they have no food or means to provide for their children. Communities desperately need to be educated about the risks of trafficking and child exploitation. And daughters need to be nurtured like sons.

If girls are in school, they are safer from predators. In school they can understand and learn about their rights and then teach their families and communities. They are the next generation, and can help shape their societies so that gender is not a factor for discrimination and exploitation.

USAID knows that investing in women translates into long term gains for women, their families and their communities around the globe.  Research shows that elevating women and girls not only builds their individual self-worth, but ultimately contributes to a country’s successful development. USAID strives to bring new innovative ideas to the field and expand opportunities for women that will ultimately lead to a more sustainable future.

For 50 years, USAID has been investing in women in developing countries around the world, by providing education opportunities, job training, healthcare, and developing programs to help combat violence against women, among other essential services. USAID is committed to preventing all forms of gender-based violence knowing that unless women fully enjoy their human rights, to which freedom from violence is inextricably bound, then progress toward development will continue to fall short.  To learn more about the issues surrounding women, and how you can help, please visit:

[1] ILO, Forced Labour and Human Trafficking: Estimating the Profits,  March 2005
[2] Ibid.
[3] UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 12 February 2009
[4] Innocenti Insight, South Asia in Action: Preventing and Responding to Child Trafficking, Advance Version, pp. 15Aug 2008