Autumn 2008: Register
Courtesy Brian Willis
A Promise Kept
Brian Willis 90L works to keep women, children safe
By Mary J. Loftus
During the end of a conversation last year with a group of mothers who were working in prostitution in Kathmandu, Nepal, Brian Willis 90L was asked by the women to make a promise.
“I told them I needed to know what it was, because my dad had taught me not to make promises I couldn’t keep,” he says. “They had told me over the course of a couple of hours terrible things that had happened to them and their children. They could have asked me to promise money or jobs, but what they asked for was simply a promise that I would keep working to help prostituted mothers and their children. And I said, that’s a promise I can keep.”
Willis, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is the director of Global Health Promise, an organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of trafficked and prostituted women and their children, a program of the Task Force for Child Survival and Development. Willis (left) recently returned from Ethiopia where he spoke with groups of prostituted women. “They told me, ‘No one has ever sat and talked with us about our concerns before,’ ” he said. “Their most pressing concern was how to help their children and keep them safe.”
His best estimate is that about twenty million women are engaged in prostitution globally. The consequences of prostitution and trafficking are the root cause of many health problems—from sexually transmitted infections to unsafe abortions to gang rape and murder.
Trafficking and prostitution also affect women and children in the United States—especially in areas where teenage runaways congregate. “From Portland to New York City, it’s going to take community-based, local solutions,” Willis says.
The issue, he says, is seen largely as a law enforcement problem, or through the lens of specific health programs—such as those that provide condoms to sex workers to prevent the spread of HIV.
Willis, who previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says no one has been systematically collecting and analyzing the data to create evidence-based prevention programs. Global Health Promise intends to adress that gap.
In 2002, Willis published the first-ever study on the global public health impact of child prostitution in The Lancet. He left the CDC in 2002 to work in the organization full time, a mission he shares with Katherine Welch, a pediatrician based in China.
“If ever there were a marginalized and powerless group in need of health care and protection, Brian has found it,” says Mark Rosenberg, executive director of the child survival task force. “He has become a passionate and effective researcher and advocate on the behalf of young women forced into prostitution and the children they have borne. He has worked tirelessly to document and describe the problem in ways that will bring the attention and resources they so badly need.”
Global Health Promise’s latest project is to open three daycare centers in Kathmandu for children of prostituted mothers.