Spotlight on Women's Health

An Expert Talks About Human Trafficking: Giovanna Hernandez Williams

January 21, 2016

When you think of human trafficking, you might think of women from impoverished countries who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution. But human trafficking also happens right here in the United States. Essentially modern-day slavery, human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to make victims take part in commercial sex work or labor against their will. That can include domestic work, farm work, factory work, or food service labor in addition to sex work. Victims of human trafficking are usually women and girls, but men and boys are also affected.

Giovanna Hernandez Williams volunteers with victim support organizations to help them access resources. We spoke with Giovanna about her work and how everyone can get involved in this important fight.

Giovanna Hernandez Williams volunteers as the director and internship coordinator with the Project to End Human Trafficking (PEHT), where she conducts international educational outreach and lectures to raise awareness and funds for victims of human trafficking. She is committed to empowering those who are in need and hurting, using her skills and talent to raise awareness and encourage others to get involved in the fight for human rights around the globe.

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Q: How did you get involved in your work to end human trafficking?

A: I started working to end human trafficking in 2008 after watching a video that shared personal stories about how people unknowingly became victims of trafficking. In each story, I felt a connection with the person's struggles — their hopes for a better future abroad; their vulnerabilities; the mental, emotional, and physical abuses; societal oppression; and a lack of understanding or support from the systems in place in the United States.

So I volunteered at the Project to End Human Trafficking. Now, I'm the director and internship coordinator, covering the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas.

Q: What do you think women need to know about trafficking?

A: Traffickers are very savvy. They look for people who have emotional issues, need money, or don't have social support or a stable living situation. People displaced by natural disasters or government and political instability in their homeland are often targeted.

Traffickers promise their victims better lives. They may promise a victim stability, education, a high-paying job, or a loving relationship. Traffickers look for people who are vulnerable and susceptible to these offers. For example, a trafficker may target someone who faces financial hardship and needs to earn money to get out of debt or support their family.

Q: What types of situations make a woman or girl more likely to get into forced labor?

A: Women and girls with lower levels of education have fewer employment options. This puts them at a disadvantage and could lead to exploitation. For example, they may not understand the terms of an employment contract, so they don't know what they're agreeing to do. Or they may know they're being taken advantage of, but they accept the job because they need to support themselves and their kids.

Recruiters and dishonest employers may exploit women and girl immigrant workers who are looking for decent work, such as domestic labor. These employers may use the victims' vulnerabilities, such as lack of family support and/or legal documentation, to hold them in debt bondage or in slavery-like conditions by underpaying or not paying their workers.

Q: What are some common types of human trafficking?

A: The two most common types of human trafficking are sexual exploitation and forced labor. Sexual exploitation includes prostitution, dancing and stripping, and pornography. Forced labor includes domestic servitude (housekeeping and childcare), janitorial work, agricultural labor, sweatshop labor, food service work, and begging or selling trinkets on the street.

Q: Generally, who are traffickers?

A: Traffickers can be anyone — men or women, young or old, friends or strangers. Sometimes they are part of a large organized network of criminals. People who recruit victims are often chosen for this role because they are good at quickly building trust with victims.

Q: Why can't trafficking victims simply run away or go to the police?

A: Victims are controlled by traffickers, meaning they don't have control over day-to-day decisions. Traffickers have some type of control over victims — often through money or debt, threats of violence to family, or physical restraints. They may threaten victims with deportation, withhold earnings, or take away their identification documents such as a passport.

Q: Who is at higher risk of becoming a victim of trafficking?

A: Victims can be rich or poor, educated or not formally educated. It can happen to anyone. However, certain people are more vulnerable. They include runaways and homeless youth, people who are oppressed or rejected by their families, very poor people, and immigrants, especially those who are undocumented and in search of a better life or job opportunities.

Q: What are the signs that a woman or girl may be a victim of trafficking?

A: Some red flags that may suggest someone is a victim of human trafficking include communications that seem rehearsed or scripted, constantly monitored movements, living with an “employer,” psychological manipulation and control in the workplace, no access to identity documentation, no contact with friends or family, poor living conditions and/or multiple people in a cramped space, and working excessively long hours with little to no pay.

Q: If you suspect someone is a victim of trafficking, what should you do?

A: It is not safe to confront a trafficker or to try and rescue potential victims on your own. Victims may be afraid or brainwashed and may not accept your help. You need to alert law enforcement by calling 911 and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 888-373-7888. The NHTRC's hotline is free, and specialists are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in more than 200 languages.

Q: Do you know of girls or women who have been liberated from trafficking, and how have they been able to adjust?

A: Absolutely, I have worked with women who have been freed from trafficking and are thriving survivors working to help other victims. These women are a strong voice for their communities. They run their own nonprofit organizations, raise awareness in their communities, serve on advocacy boards to raise funds for victims, and testify in Congress to share their stories. They also work with law enforcement officials to train police on victim identification. That way, victims can be helped and not treated as criminals, which is typical in these situations.

Q: What challenges do we face in putting an end to trafficking, and what's being done to stop it?

A: One of the main challenges is that victims often do not speak up. They may have been brainwashed or feel that what has happened to them is their fault. They may fear traffickers or have difficulty trusting people who could help them, such as police or doctors. They may feel shame and fear, and there may be language barriers. In some cases, victims don't see themselves as victims.

That's why we need to make everyone in the community aware of this problem and help victims come forward to talk about it. I believe that will make it easier for others to ask for help. We have to create an environment and culture where vulnerable people, including prostitutes and immigrants, are not automatically treated as criminals.

Q: What can ordinary people do to help victims?

A: As friends, parents, guardians, teachers, community leaders, advocacy groups, business owners, law enforcement individuals, and policymakers, we each can play a role in combating human trafficking. No one should be treated as a commodity. Awareness is the first step. Recognizing the signs of human trafficking can help save a life.

There are many free educational resources available on reputable government websites. We can spread the word and have discussions with family, friends, and loved ones. Remember that by being aware, identifying possible victims, and reporting tips, we are part of the solution.

Visit the Administration for Children and Families website to learn more about human trafficking.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.