Stopping Traffic

How Emory faculty, students, and advocates are confronting the complicated crisis of human trafficking

Illustration by Darren Hopes

By the time she came to Emory, Maya Lakshman 19C already understood what it means to live in vulnerability and fear. She also knew how good it feels to be able to help.

Lakshman's mother started and ran a support and awareness organization for victims of domestic violence in their hometown of San Diego, and eleven-year-old Lakshman would help in any way she could—doing administrative tasks, compiling email lists, and setting up for small events. The experience led to an early social and political awakening.

"I saw my mother getting so passionate about it," she says. "She really wanted to make a change."

Lakshman immersed herself in reading and learning about domestic violence, which led to information about sexual abuse, which led to the emerging topic of sex trafficking—heavy subjects for a preteen. So when she arrived at Emory in fall 2014, Lakshman was aware that human trafficking is a problem in Atlanta, and she wanted to follow her mother's example by reaching out into the community and doing something about it.

But, "I didn't know if there was anyone else at Emory as eager to make a change in this field as I was," she says. By the end of her first year, the anthropology and human biology major had met a classmate to help her cofound Red Light Emory—a student group that works with local nonprofits to help victims overcome the mental health consequences of child sex trafficking—and had fielded applications from more than eighty other students eager to join the effort. She also found faculty members, advisers, and the Center for Civic and Community Engagement ready to offer support.

"The faculty here are amazing. They have changed my perspective and been supportive of this work," says Lakshman. "And there are also a lot of amazing students here—Red Light could not be putting on any of this stuff if there weren't people making it happen."

Lakshman's proposal for Red Light Emory outlined a three-pronged approach to helping sex-trafficking victims in Atlanta. The first is outreach through off-campus partners Youth Spark, which focuses on children, and Haven Atlanta, geared toward women. Red Light volunteers organize programs for victims such as health fairs, etiquette classes, even talent shows—anything that might help ease the stress that follows their experience. Second is advocacy on and off campus, including events like public concerts and art shows to raise awareness. And the third piece is education—training outside volunteers to interact with people who have experienced any type of trauma. At every step, Lakshman says, she drew encouragement from people she encountered across the Emory campus.

"We're big on social justice and responding to students' desires to make meaningful contributions to the community," says James Roland, senior director of the Center for Civic and Community Engagement, housed in the Division of Campus Life. "With Red Light, it was refreshing to see that they didn't bite off more than they could chew. It showed a level of maturity and sensitivity. Their proposal was so well-thought-out that not only was it easy to say yes, it was easy to see how it would be successful."

Red Light quickly became a path for undergraduates who wanted to get involved with the issue at the community level. It also became the latest in a series of Emory-based efforts to take action against sex trafficking in Atlanta and beyond, helping to fuel the momentum behind ongoing work including projects at the Emory Global Health Institute (EGHI), the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at the School of Law, Rollins School of Public Health, and among alumni who are studying the issue and raising awareness.

"Emory has connections to everything," says Lakshman, "in Atlanta and all over the world."


Inspired by her mother's work with victims of domestic violence, Lakshman cofounded Red Light Emory, a student organization that works in the Atlanta community to help women who have been affected by sex trafficking.

Kay Hinton

Public Health Perspective

Jasmine Ko 15C 17MPH had seen the posters at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport—the signs in English and Spanish warning travelers to be on the lookout for children who might be trafficked through the world's busiest international air hub. Ko, a second-year graduate student in public health focusing on epidemiology, had heard through her studies at Rollins that sex trafficking was an issue in Atlanta, but she had never seen much about it in the news. So when she and her fellow members of the EGHI's Student Advisory Committee (SAC) were looking for a topic for the 2016 Global Health Case Competition, Ko had a suggestion.

The annual competition is an opportunity for students across schools and disciplines to collaborate and devise innovative solutions to twenty-first-century global health issues. Teams conduct in-depth research, interview experts in the field, and compile the data into a report. Last year, human trafficking in Atlanta was selected as the challenge.

"We had never done a local case," Ko says of the nine-year-old competition. "We always want to make sure the issue is very complex with no known strategy that has been proven to work. Sex trafficking came about because we thought it would be good to focus on Atlanta."

The SAC quickly ran into one of the most formidable obstacles to addressing the issue. Because the sex-trafficking industry is illegal and operates underground, there is a lack of information on the subject. And owing to the stigma surrounding victims, survivors of the sex trade are reluctant to speak out. As a result, reliable, consistent data can be hard to come by.

"As an epidemiologist, it was difficult because you can't study what you can't measure," says Ko. "You want to see statistics, but with sex trafficking it's hard because there is no data. Nobody is collecting this stuff on a large scale. You don't come across the kind of studies you'd normally see with a public health issue."

Even defining "sex trafficking" proved surprisingly difficult, because some organizations are focused only on girls and boys under the age of eighteen, assuming that anyone older is able to consent and advocate for themselves.

Pushing forward, Ko and her group gathered what data they could find and interviewed local aid organizations, government social workers, law enforcement, and attorneys who had worked in the field.

"Through Emory, we had the capacity to approach it from legal, law enforcement, research, and public health angles," says Leslie Munoz Johnson 09Ox 11C 14MPH 22PhD, a third-year doctoral student in behavioral science at Rollins and lead writer on the case-writing team. Johnson consulted a former FBI agent who'd had twenty years of experience in dealing with sex trafficking victims. And that insight, along with other field interviews, helped provide a factual framework for the report.

The EGHI case-writing team found that there were between ten million and thirty million victims, 80 percent of whom are women or girls, who were being trafficked for sex—somewhere between a $290 million and $99 billion industry. Atlanta,they found, had emerged as an international hub for the practice, due mostly to its busy Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. According to the team's findings, many victims are flown in believing that they are coming here to work for money to send home, but once here, their identification is taken from them and they are stranded. Helpless, many are then pressed into the sex trade.

But the EGHI case also found that Atlanta's trafficking problem is not restricted to transients from other countries. There is a range of factors that also put local metro populations at risk—particularly children. With 39 percent of children living in poverty, many face homelessness, high crime, housing instability, and educational failure. Other risk factors include problems at home, such as neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. In many cases, victims are running away from these problems; lost, they sometimes resort to survival sex, or they are recruited, lured, or coerced into prostitution by pimps who buy and sell them as commodities. In Atlanta, data indicates that most of the local victims are female and African American; LGBT youth are also at a higher risk of exploitation through sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a global health problem as well as a social issue. Johnson and Ko found that victims who managed to escape the trade may suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV; unintended pregnancies; and severe physical injuries. Worse might be the psychological damage: anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, panic attacks, insomnia, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
"Mental health is a huge issue," says Johnson. "Once you've assessed these individuals, I think it's obvious that there will be some counseling and mental health treatment needs."

Of twelve Emory teams in the 2016 EGHI Case Competition, the winner zeroed in on those needs—proposing an after-school photography program to bolster girls' self-esteem and teach them about the risk factors for sex trafficking. But Johnson says that since the competition, other participants and even some of the judges from local organizations have inquired about possible help in combating the problem from all angles—especially the legal arena.

"I've never encountered a problem that was so dependent on the law—it was way outside of our expertise," says Ko. "But we didn't have to go too far from Emory to get a feel for what was happening."

Not a New Problem

Emory's engagement in the fight against human trafficking in Atlanta is hardly a recent development. Just ask Kirsten Widner.

Widner is a lawyer and graduate student in political science at Emory. She is also a former director of policy and advocacy for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic, part of Emory Law. When she arrived in Atlanta on a two-year Barton fellowship, her first big project was to compile data and research on the commercial sexual exploitation of children for policy recommendations to the Georgia legislature. The year was 2007.

"It sort of fell into my lap," says Widner. "We had this great momentum—the community here was interested."

Available data was even more scarce for Widner than it would be for the GHI teams almost a decade later. But what Widner could plainly see was that there were a number of teenage girls coming through county court charged with prostitution. At the time, the primary approach to these girls was law–enforcement based—the kids were arrested and entered into the juvenile justice system.

"The problem with that, from a public defender's point of view, is that in order to move them into a victim program, you have to charge them," says Randee Waldman, a clinical professor of law at Emory's Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic. "Would I rather see them in a treatment program than a detention center? Sure. But you might be putting them into a program that they're not ready for."

Waldman says she was seeing criminal charges as coercive measures to put them in treatment; and, "if the girls aren't willingly seeking help, treatment is less likely to be successful."

"They're sexual abuse victims more than criminals," says Widner. "The response to them should be the response to a victim rather than a criminal."

In her advisory report, Widner pointed to a recent Boston pilot project that operated on a child abuse model rather than a criminal one. Her recommendation was to make commercial sex exploitation a form of child abuse, thus compelling mandatory reporters like police, doctors, and teachers to report any suspicions to the Department of Child and Family Services. And in 2009, the Georgia legislature passed a bill to do just that.

The next step was reforming the criminal law to offer more protection to victims of sex trafficking. As it stood, the court could still rule that anyone over the age of consent had willingly engaged in sex with their "johns." Although a 2010 bill that would have protected trafficked victims from prosecution for prostitution failed, Widner and her fellow advocates did succeed in creating an affirmative defense, and later, a legal presumption that the defense applies for victims under eighteen. They have also seen the creation of a Safe Harbor fund—fines collected from those convicted of sex trafficking, along with surcharges on adult entertainment—that is allocated especially for treatment and diversion programs.

Now Widner has her sights on the implementation of her and her fellow advocates' legislative work.

"Georgia is one of the leading states in its legal response to these kids," she says. "Now we need to make sure we have the processes to back that up. We are working with the agencies tasked with these things. The Department of Family and Child Services has expressed commitment, but it's a big bureaucracy with lots of hoops to jump through. There's more work to be done."


As director of policy and advocacy for Emory Law's Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic, Widner helped change the definition of those who fall prey to exploitation from criminal to victim.

Kay Hinton

Fuel for the Road Ahead

Human trafficking is not an Atlanta problem; it's a global crisis. Emory also is having an impact through faculty and alumni who have taken what they've learned here and moved on to the private sector or other institutions.

Carrie Baker 94G 94L 01PhD is associate professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and author of the forthcoming Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics (Cambridge University Press), as well as numerous related articles. Baker's path was shaped at Emory, where she earned three degrees and taught during a time when the issue was just starting to attract widespread attention.

"Atlanta has a huge adult sex trade," says Baker. "Not just prostitution but strip clubs—a culture very tolerant of the commercialization of sex. People encounter it in their communities and in the media. It's normalized, and young people pick up on that."

Baker says this general acceptance of sex commodification, along with the city's racial and wealth inequities, create a favorable climate for systemic abuse. But she also points out that the powerful presence of influential women and minorities, like former Mayor Shirley Franklin, helped the city pioneer a nationwide push to treat young women who are caught up in the industry as victims rather than criminals. Emory, she notes, has contributed to that positive movement toward advocacy all along.

"The Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic was an early advocate on this issue," she says. "Broadly, universities have access to researchers and funding streams; faculty and students have the time and resources to work with non-governmental organizations and governments."

Baker says that by mobilizing its resources, including the Barton Clinic, Rollins, and the Schools of Medicine and Law, the university has been a leading example of how an institution of higher learning can be a powerful ally to advocates and governments. Emory's support of research and policy recommendations also lends credibility to the findings and possible solutions. And when large research universities and their faculty and students speak out about an issue, it helps raise awareness—the public listens.

"Having Emory involved contributes a lot," Baker says. "More and more universities are trying to encourage their faculty to be public scholars. And I'm sure there are many Emory grads working for change in traffic-related areas."


Baker's forthcoming book on the US sex-trafficking industry highlights the activism that has raised public awareness and created positive change.

Jim Gipe

After completing her Emory degree, Red Light cofounder Lakshman plans to attend graduate school, where she hopes to focus on legal advocacy and community health. In between studies, she'll dedicate her time to Red Light, working to grow the organization and its reach in the community. Red Light is a model that Lakshman believes can have a concrete impact if applied on a national or even global scale.

And regardless of the path her career takes, Lakshman knows she will continue her work to stop human trafficking.

"I couldn't let this go; it's become a huge part of my life," she says. "That's the thing about activism—it becomes a key part of who you are."

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