BYU students fight global issue of human trafficking

California native Stephanie Larsen is the first woman in four generations of her family to be free from the horrors of sex slavery.

Larsen’s great-great grandmother, great grandmother, grandmother and mother were all trafficked and sexually abused for money. Larsen said it is because of the courage of her mother, who escaped the cycle, that she is protected today. However, Larsen said not all children are so lucky. According to the Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, 100,000 children are estimated to be in the U.S. sex trade per year.

Human trafficking is found in all countries of the world, despite the fact that it is illegal everywhere. A group of passionate BYU students joined together in 2009 to fight this issue and have been working with nonprofit groups to raise both awareness about the issue and funds to fight it.

When most people think of sex slavery or human trafficking, they think of people in countries outside the United States. However, the issue is prevalent in the United States and even affects Utah. In 2011, a Utah mother tried selling her daughter’s virginity to a man for $10,000, according to a report by ABC News.

Sex trafficking is not the only type of human slavery. Many companies operate and produce using slave labor. Kyle Durfee, president of the BYU Anti-Human Trafficking Club, said that slavery affects BYU students more than they know.

“We’re eating it. We’re wearing it. We’re living it every single day,” Durfee said. “If we ignore it, it won’t get better.”

Members of the BYU Anti-Human Trafficking club work to fight the issue of modern slavery

Durfee said human trafficking is a hard issue to fight because many people do not know about it. He also said many people do not know what to do when they find out about it. Durfee said he became interested in the issue when his favorite band, Switchfoot, got involved through its Freedom project initiative.

“I wondered how I could go 18 years of my life not hearing that slavery still existed,” Durfee said. “It blew my mind.”

Durfee decided to start the Anti-Human Trafficking Club with some of his friends his freshman year. He said the focus of the club is to help non-governmental organizations that are fighting the issue through fundraising as well as giving their time and talents. Durfee said there is something every BYU student can do to fight the issue.

“Try to find your strengths and then find ways to plug your strengths into it,” Durfee said. “In the club, we all work to help in the ways that we are strongest.”

Jeremy Sookho, a senior from Modesto, Calif., sought out the club after he learned about the trafficking issue on his mission and from a friend.

“I served my mission in South India,” Sookho said. “It’s an issue there to some extent. When I got back, I had a friend writing a paper on it for her capstone project, so she told me about the issue. (The club) has put me in touch with like-minded people (and) other people who are passionate about stopping (human trafficking).”

Sookho said that BYU students may not personally be victims of human trafficking, but it is still an issue they should do something about.

“People at BYU have served missions or have roots (in) other places outside of Utah, where it’s a huge problem,” Sookho said. “My brother saw it first-hand in his mission on a daily basis. Because we care about our fellow man, purity is something so important to us, and we have exposure to other parts of the world. The issue has a natural appeal to a lot of students here at BYU.”

Soohko said that students can be involved in other ways besides joining the Anti-Human Trafficking club. He said it is important for students to be personally aware of the issue and to be able to spot signs of those who are being abused. He also said it is important for students to be involved politically.

“It’s not uncommon that states will put in propositions that students can vote on,” Soohko said. “Being active in the political process and voting, and even going to the next step to write senators and members of the House of Representatives, is something BYU students can do.”

Professor Mathew Mason teaches American History and researches slavery and abolitionism in the 19th century. He is the faculty adviser for the Anti-Human Trafficking Club and says the greatest way the club helps fight the issue is to connect students to larger organizations.

“The way to make a difference as a student organization is to make connections with non-governmental organizations that are doing something,” Mason said. “We can connect to activists who are doing this every day to make a difference in a practical way. They can use the funds; they can use our time.”

Mason said one focus of his research deals with what inspired people to finally act against slavery. He found that it happened when people felt personally connected to the issue. He also said that the history of slavery and its abolishment in the U.S. gives a great example for the pattern of fighting modern slavery.

“We sometimes think, when we think about history, it took one person who just made it happen,” Mason said. “In fact, it’s a big long movement that stretched for decades involving a whole variety of people doing a whole variety of different things that they were good at doing.”

Mason said the issue is one that people must confront and take action against.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I wish slavery didn’t exist, and I’m anti-slavery’ in principal,” Mason said. “But it’s another thing to actually do something about it.”

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