Today, Keisha Head is a wife and mother of three. But more than decade ago, she was the victim of a notorious human trafficker.
At 16-years old, Head says she was being sold on the streets of Atlanta for sex.
“I did not know that a normal, average man who was a preacher, who was a lawyer, who was a senator - could turn into this monster,” Head said. “That is the scariest moment when you are amongst people who claim to be normal yet they purchase you and they turn into these monsters. They rape you. They beat you. And then act as if they're normal. These are not your normal pedophiles.”
Experts say, across the globe, millions of people are trafficked each year. Hundreds of thousands of the victims are women and girls. But what surprises many -- is the rate it is happening in affluent neighborhoods where minors are being turned into sex slaves.
“The buyers aren't just pedophiles. The buyers are normal community men, normal leaders, people that belong to someone,” said Jennifer Swain, state coordinator for A Future. Not A Past.
A Future. Not A Past., is a campaign organized by the Juvenile Justice Fund in Georgia. Swain and her peers, such as Keisha Head, work to educate and prevent exploited children.
The organization lobbied Georgia legislators to pass HB 200 last year. A victory for victim advocates, the bill imposes stricter punishments on offenders and improves the treatment of trafficking victims.
“We have to stop the men. This is a very lucrative business,” Swain said.
According to the Georgia Governor’s Office, more than 400 girls are sexually exploited every month in the state. On average, the girls begin having sex for money between the age of 12 and 14.
“Atlanta is one of 14 cities in the United States that are the highest in terms of child prostitution and sexual exploitation,” said Brian D Lamkin, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Atlanta Field Office. “It's a major transportation hub -- not just domestically but internationally.”
Businesses Getting on Board
Atlanta is seeing the problem firsthand. Some attribute the issue to a huge interstate system. Others put the blame on Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport – the world’s busiest airport.
“I think they are absolutely connected. We don’t know for sure but we have seen human traffickers utilize the airport to bring in victims,” Brock Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge ICE Atlanta. “We know that the same airports bring in conventioneers and other targets or employers that might be interested in these individuals as well.”
But there are now big corporations getting on board such as Coca Cola, Delta and LexisNexis. Many are taking initiatives to educate employees about red flags whether it is in the supply chains for their products or customers such as airline travelers.
In fact, Delta Airlines is the first major airline to sign the ECPAT, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. It’s a global network of businesses that work together to eliminate of child prostitution. Delta is developing policies and procedures to educate employees recognize the problem and address it.
“I know Delta has put a lot of their pilots and their stewards through training to be aware of things to look for - to be aware of the signs and signals,” said Elisabeth Marchant, the founder of Womenetics, a resource for female business professionals who are proactively educating employees about warning signs and red flags.
“There is also a big move in the hospitality industry now with hotel systems -- like the Intercontinental Hotel Group and Hilton -- who have also joined ECPAT who are working on these issues to create alerts and lookout for these problems in hotels,” she said.
With increasing technology and the Internet, human trafficking has become more accessible and more anonymous. That being said, grassroots organizations, victims advocates as well as lawmakers and prosecutors are banding together to combat the problem. They all pledge to do so until it no longer plagues the lives of victims across the globe.
“Who could imagine we would allow any of this to happen?” said Marchant. “It’s just incomprehensible to me that this is happening today. Young children in particular are being taken advantage of and being sold. It is just not acceptable.”